In California, foster youth are able to stay in care until they turn 21. “At 21, you’re on the street, you’re emancipated,” says Supervisor Dave Cortese, one of Santa Clara County’s five elected supervisors. At that point, the transition into adult life can be tough. “Not to stereotype,” Cortese says, “but traditionally, it’s a cohort that would be overrepresented in clinical mental health problems, homelessness, and food anxiety.” A study conducted among transitioning Midwestern foster youths showed that 29% of the individuals had become homeless by age 23 or 24.
Running for a year, from June 2020 to May 2021, a new pilot program spearheaded by Cortese will give these young adults $1,000 a month to help ease them through the financial burdens of that sudden exit from the foster system. And Cortese hopes it’s the start of something bigger: What energized this pilot wasn’t merely solving foster problems but a desire to implement a broader universal basic income as a “safety net tool” for the entire county.
In mid-2019, UBI advocate Gisele Huff pitched the idea to Cortese, who suggested beginning with a pilot program. The foster youth population seemed ideal. The state already keeps data on them; what’s more, Cortese says they are “wards of the county” and that the state has a humanitarian, parental duty to take care of them, even as they age. “I oftentimes express to younger parents: ‘This job of parenting doesn’t end at 18 years old,'” says Cortese, who has four children of his own over the age of 20. “I think that’s true when the county is a surrogate parent, as well.”
After Cortese introduced the bill, it passed unanimously among the county’s five supervisors. After moving through various committees to confirm the details of the program—and expediting it because of increased urgency during the pandemic—it was approved on April 21, 2020. The county has allocated $900,000 to the fund, comprising $1,000 per month for the foster youths and $36,000 for program evaluation. Mentors will meet with recipients at 3-, 6-, and 12-month points, to track progress and to engage in financial literacy coaching. The pilot will serve 72 out of 131 individuals who turned 24 between January 1 and April 29—because “county services available to former foster youth reduce steeply after age 24,” according to the county numbers.
That restriction, which Cortese laments, is purely due to budgetary constraints for the pilot. The stipends are largely taxpayer-funded, though Huff’s organization, The Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity, is also contributing. The county is also looking for further philanthropic donors for a public-private partnership to help expand the program to the rest of the foster youth.
Cortese hopes the payouts will help transitioning youth pay for housing, food, clothing—”all the necessities of life”—especially in one of the U.S.’s most expensive counties. Santa Clara, the home of Silicon Valley, including Apple’s base in Cupertino and Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, has some of the highest housing prices in the nation, with the current average rent at $2,974. “Even $1,000 is only going to get you so far,” he admits.
Based on the test results, his hope is to expand the UBI as a broader county initiative with more participants. At the very least, he would like to see it continued “indefinitely” with the foster population, and he’d also like for it to be explored with other in-need demographics, particularly those affected by the coronavirus, such as the elderly, who are “very vulnerable and very challenged to live in this high cost of living here.”
Whatever the case, one thing he wants to ensure is that the county does not limit how recipients spend the money. Traditionally, welfare grants allow people to only use state money for certain prescribed items, such as food or tuition. “What it’s really saying is ‘You don’t have the freedom of other human beings to go out and make choices about how to invest the dollars,'” Cortese says. “If we’re so much better at making decisions about how they should use their money, then why isn’t it working?”