Why one Bay Area County Is Exploring Basic Income for Former Foster Youth

If approved, pilot program would be first of its kind in the nation

Erica Hellerstein, The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - Former foster youth and Razing the Bar co-founder Dontae Lartigue works, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, at his non-profit in San Jose, Calif., helping foster youth with professional development. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

When Dontae Lartigue left foster care right before his 19th birthday in 2009, finding housing in Santa Clara County was one of his biggest obstacles. He struggled to find places he could afford on his $12 an hour salary at Walmart, and with a limited income and no rental history, he found landlords were often wary of returning his calls. So Lartigue, who is now 29 years old, ended up couch surfing or sleeping in his car.

“Right now when a foster youth like me emancipates, I don’t have credit, I don’t have enough income, and I don’t have rental history,” he says. “So most of the time I’ve already got my back against the wall.”

Santa Clara County is considering a bold new pilot program that could make the transition for people like Lartigue easier: giving young people aging out of foster care a universal basic income.

The idea — proposed by Santa County County Supervisor Dave Cortese — is still in the exploratory stages, but if approved, it would be the first universal basic income program in the nation to target foster youth. It will likely be brought first before a board committee in March and later taken to the Board of Supervisors.

The monthly income and the age range for participants are not finalized, but county staff say they believe $1,000 could be an appropriate amount. They expect the pilot program could last between one and two years. They are also exploring which age group to target: youths 18 to 21 who are in extended foster care or may be ineligible for extended care, or youths 21 to 24 who have aged out of the foster care system.

If approved, the program would join a number of universal basic income experiments in the Bay Area and beyond testing whether providing low-income residents with a baseline wage with few strings attached can improve their lives. The idea of universal basic income is gaining momentum, with a proposal to give every U.S. citizen over the age of 18 $1,000 a month forming the basis of Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign. Universal basic income projects are already underway in Stockton, which began a $500-a-month trial for 125 residents in February 2019, and Jackson, Mississippi, which distributed $1,000 per month to a group of low-income African-American mothers.

The Santa Clara County proposal would provide funds to youth who have exited the state’s foster care system or will age out and lose access to social services when they turn 21. Cortese says the foster youth population is the “perfect incubator” for a UBI experiment.

“We have nowhere to go but up,” he says. “Because this population is with us now and they’re not doing well. And I think this will give us an opportunity to see, to learn how they can do better without controlling their lives.”

County staff say the program could cost nearly $700,000 a year if a basic monthly income of $1,000 was provided to the roughly 58 youth transitioning out of foster care. There are another 195 youth in extended foster care, according to county estimates. To help with funding, Cortese says, the county is exploring partnerships with philanthropic organizations.

“It should be in everyone’s interest that these kids succeed,” he says, “not just the county government.”

Former foster youth often struggle to find stability, affordable housing and jobs as they transition into early adulthood. One study from the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that by the age of 24, just half of former foster youth were employed and nearly 30 percent had experienced homelessness.

“These children really belong to all of us,” says Supervisor Cindy Chavez. “Foster youth are children that, for lack of a better word, don’t have families and so for all intent, the county becomes that family. It’s really our primary responsibility to make sure that these kids do succeed.”

Advocates and experts who work with the foster youth population, as well as former foster youth, say resources often taper off at key periods of transition, such as graduating high school, looking for work, and venturing into the housing market for the first time.

Sparky Harlan, CEO of the nonprofit Bill Wilson Center, which provides services to homeless youth and families in Santa Clara County, said the additional cash offered by a universal basic income program could help former foster youth who are at-risk of becoming homeless secure housing.

“As long as you have housing, you can get other things to keep you from becoming homeless,” she says.

For Lartigue, who ended up getting on his feet, graduating from San Jose State, and later founded Razing the Bar, a nonprofit for current and former foster youth in Santa Clara County, the extra support could have helped reduce the turbulence of the post-foster care years.

“A lot of these kids are exhausted by life and don’t have the support they need,” he says. “At the end of the day this could I think improve the quality of life for these young people.”

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