CA offers universal basic income to state foster youth

In May, Veronica Vieyra graduated from San Jose State University with a bachelor’s degree — a feat fewer than 6% of California former foster youth achieve.

But entering a job market ravaged by a yearlong pandemic has proven an unexpected challenge. Months of submitting applications have so far been met with silence.

What has allowed Vieyra to keep forging ahead toward her goal of working in a public health career, she said, is a $1,000 payment she received each month as part of a UBI — or universal basic income — pilot project for former foster youth in Santa Clara County.

“If it wasn’t for that support and resources, I’d be stressing a lot about what I’m going to do,” said Vieyra, 25. “Sometimes I feel like if it wasn’t for that, I’d be homeless by now.”

A bill moving through the state Legislature aims to bring the same guaranteed monthly income to former foster youth statewide.

Authored by state Sen. Dave Cortese (D), who represents the San Jose area, Senate Bill 739 would provide eligible former foster youth with $1,000 unrestricted cash payments each month for three years after aging out of extended foster care at 21. The bill handily passed in the state Senate, and is now awaiting committee hearings in the Assembly.

SB 739 closely mirrors the $900,000 local benefit program in Santa Clara County, which Cortese spearheaded as a county supervisor before being elected to statewide office. The state program would be limited to youth who remained in foster care until their 21st birthday, while the county benefits are offered to eligible youth who had been in foster care anytime after age 15.

Roughly 2,500 21-year-olds age out of foster care each year, many with no job prospects, shaky housing and few adults they can rely on for support. Senate Bill 739 would require between $29 million and $30 million each year from the state’s General Fund to provide for the monthly benefit, according to an analysis prepared for the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

The idea behind the bill, Cortese told The Imprint, is to provide former foster youth with the same kind of financial safety net many parents provide for their adult children.

For decades, foster youth were abruptly cut off from all benefits the day they turned 18. In 2010, recognizing the myriad challenges these vulnerable young people faced as they struggled to become independent, the state passed Assembly Bill 12, extending foster care in the form of financial and housing assistance for 18- to 21-year-olds. But the benefits are conditional — young adults must appear in court, perform well in school and work a certain number of hours at a job or training site to continue receiving help. As reported in a special series by The Imprint last year, despite the assistance, many youth still fall into homelessness and dire circumstances.

“The system designed to support our foster youth through their transitional years is simply not working as it should. Foster youth come upon tremendous hardship as it is, and they are continuing to face significant challenges after aging out of care,” Cortese said. “This bill has the power to improve long-term outcomes for foster youth and set them on a stable path to success.”
Sen. Dave Cortese announcing the Santa Clara County foster youth UBI program. Photo courtesy of the office of Dave Cortese.

Santa Clara County residents who have received the UBI say it helped them pay for basic expenses and even allowed them to build up some savings, according to a May progress report prepared for the Board of Supervisors. The program that has served 72 young adults so far also offers mentors, who help UBI recipients in the county manage their money and set financial goals. With such support, the report stated, one young person was able to start saving for a down payment on a house. Other participants reported significant increases in their credit scores, and “a feeling of empowerment to obtain financial resources.” The report recommends a six month extension of Santa Clara County’s program so they can gather more data on its effectiveness.

While there has been no formal opposition to the state bill, critics of the UBI model — popularized by New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang in the 2018 presidential primaries — raise concerns that the money will serve as a disincentive for people to find jobs, creating a drag on the economy. But preliminary results from both the Santa Clara County program and a UBI offered to low-income residents in Stockton, indicate otherwise, said Andrew Cain, directing attorney at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, the firm representing local foster children and young adults in extended foster care.

“What the evidence has borne out is the exact opposite — there is a positive correlation,” Cain said. “The basic income is the stabilizing force that allows youth to avoid some of the disruptions in their lives caused by financial uncertainty.”

Data from Stockton’s program found that UBI recipients were twice as likely as those in the control group to advance from part-time to full-time employment. Participants, who received $500 a month, said the financial stability allowed them to take time off shift jobs for interviews, and to take lower paying internships they might otherwise not be able to afford, in order to advance their long-term career goals.

A number of UBI programs are being considered and launched in cities and counties throughout California — including in Los Angeles, Compton, Marin County and Oakland. Across the country, similar programs are popping up in Chicago, Atlanta and Gainesville, among other locations.

New York City is launching a cash assistance program for youth experiencing homelessness, but Santa Clara County’s is the first offered exclusively to foster youth, according to a February report from leading child welfare researcher Mark Courtney of the University of Chicago.

Courtney and his colleagues, who have long studied the challenges foster youth face when leaving the system as young adults, said the UBI model is likely to improve otherwise troubling outcomes. When benefits are cut off at age 21, as many as one in four former foster youth in California struggle with homelessness and they are more likely than their peers to be unemployed or earn low wages.

“Ending support at 21 ignores the continuing threat of homelessness for these young people, cuts them off from aid for their continuing education when many of them are still in school, disrupts the continuity of access to mental health services for those coping with their histories of trauma, and plunges many young parents and their children into poverty,” Courtney and co-author Shanta Trivedi, a fellow at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote.

SB 739 has received wide support from child welfare professionals, local governments, community-based agencies and youth advocacy groups as well as from the Juvenile Court Judges of California and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D).

While Vieyra toughs out the challenging job hunt, she said she’s grateful for not only the financial help each month, but the guidance she’s received along with it, skills not all foster youth leaving the system have acquired.

With her degree in public health from San Jose State University, she hopes to find a career that will allow her to mentor youth, assist families in need and connect survivors of domestic violence to the resources they need.

“In the meantime,” Vieyra said, “just being part of this program lets me feel like they’ve got me while I keep working on that. The program was that one hand that I needed.”

From The Imprint