Save state money: Extend foster support to age 21

By Jennifer Skala, Vice President of Community Impact

foster parent support, nebraska foster care

When most people think of foster care, they think of families caring for babies and young children on a temporary basis. And, to be fair, this is what the foster care system was set up to look like.

But in Nebraska and across the county, a very different reality has emerged. Right now, 43% of youth in Nebraska’s foster care system are between the ages of 14 and 19. And chances are, there’s no permanent home waiting for them. These kids are likely to “age out” of the foster care system when they turn 19.

What does it mean to age out?

It means that wards of the state, who may have had multiple foster placements over the years, are now on their own. They have to find their own housing, manage their educations, seek out their own health care, plan their futures, secure reliable transportation, find and keep jobs with a living wage without support from parents, foster parents or systems that understand their needs.

The national costs created by aging out are more than $8 billion each year.

Based on a national report, we estimate the costs for the 307 young people who age out of the Nebraska foster care system every year to be $90 million over their lifetimes. That’s the price of academic failure, too early pregnancy and criminal justice involvement.

Only 58% of youth aging out will graduate from high school.

The remaining 42%? Virtually unemployable. Look for long-term financial dependence on the state, as well as higher incidences of substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy and legal trouble.

Only 6% of youth aging out will go on to attain two- or four-year degrees by age 24

The other 94% are looking at low-paying, low-stability jobs. That means decreased chances of home ownership and of setting up a stable family.

71% of young women who age out will have one child by their 21st birthday. 62% will have two children by this time.

Most of these children will require state support, and their young mothers will have even greater difficulty working toward advanced education and holding down a full-time job that allows them to care for their children.

67% will receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) 

This outcome illustrates how unsuccessful the average young person aging out will be at transitioning to a successful adulthood. Continuing supports and services until age 21 will empower them to finish high school, establish post-secondary education and get on a career path encourage self-sufficiency.

At age 26, only 48% of youth who age out are steadily employed.

Compared to 72% of the general population in the same age group, it seems obvious that youth who have aged out have the odds stacked against them in finding full-time employment. And with statistically less education, no stable permanent address, questionable access to transportation and no caring adult to go to for advice, it’s clear why. Those who aged out also make $18,000 less per year (median) than those in their age groups.

Nearly 60% of young men who age out will be convicted of crimes.

This is a staggering number, compared to 10% of the general population in the same age group. One in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of leaving foster care.  By age 26, the majority of women and 80 percent of men will have been arrested at least once. As long as young men are aging out of foster care, most of them will be funneled directly into the criminal justice system. And any economist will tell you that it’s less expensive to keep a young person out of the justice system than it is to incarcerate, rehabilitate and reintegrate that person into society.

24% of youth who age out will experience homelessness by age 24.

For some, it’s couch surfing. For others, it’s sleeping in a car. Whatever form the specifics take, not having a place to live is called homelessness. And homeless youth are at high risk for drug abuse, pregnancy and involvement in crime.

That’s today’s reality. Here’s what it looks like when we extend foster care support to age 21:

  • Youth in foster care will have the option to live in  a family environment and will not be homeless, so they’ll be far more likely to  graduate from high school or attain a GED
  • By age 21, those who want to work toward a college degree will already be established on that course.
  • Young people will have the chance to move out of the system on their own, establishing  a path to adulthood with the support of people and resources
  • Allowing young people to get more education while having the supports and services they need  will empower them to secure better paying, more stable employment.

By extending supports and services to age 21, the state has the potential to recoup $90 million. We think that an educated, employed, empowered population is healthier, more productive and less costly to young people and to Nebraska. What are your thoughts on extending supports and services to age 21?

Feel free to share them in the comments or to contact me at or 402-476-9401. Learn more about Project Everlast, our program to give youth in foster care a voice in policy and a system of resources to transition into adulthood or contact program director Rosey Higgs.

*Statistics are from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Foundation Cost Avoidance Study and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Nebraska Children's mission is to maximize the potential of Nebraska’s children, youth, and families through collaboration and community-centered impact.

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Posted in Cradle to career, Teen/Early Adulthood
2 comments on “Save state money: Extend foster support to age 21
  1. […] care. It’s a common occurrence for state wards to become homeless by the time they turn 21. And housing insecurity leads to a host of negative outcomes, including low educational achievement, chronic unemployment, unwanted pregnancies and criminal […]

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