April 24, 2020
By Alison Paxson, Policy Fellow
Safe communities for all people. Stability. Healthy relationships. Financial security. Fulfilling career opportunities. CDF-Ohio asked youth to imagine what their lives look like as happy, healthy adults 10 years from now.
With the emergence of COVID-19, we must now ask the more immediate question of how life looks in 10 days from now or 10 weeks from now. It is very clear that this pandemic will change nearly every aspect of our lives for the foreseeable future. For our most vulnerable youth transitioning to adulthood, these changes will likely be even more destabilizing, exacerbating challenges many faced even before this pandemic to meet basic needs, achieve stability, and pursue their aspirations for the future. Our youth need our support now more than ever as they are facing new economic challenges created by this pandemic that will make it all the more difficult for them to achieve financial security throughout this crisis and beyond.
In 2019, CDF-Ohio conducted a series of focus groups with youth throughout Franklin County to engage them directly in the process of informing recommendations for a report that was released this month
This new report, Cultivating Opportunities for All Youth to Flourish in Franklin County, published in partnership with The Columbus Foundation, examines the characteristics of youth, the challenges they face, and recommendations for how we can ensure youth are healthy and well as they become adults.
According to this report, there are over 15,000 youth ages 16-24 in Franklin County who are not enrolled in school or participating in the workforce – a group commonly referred to as “Opportunity Youth”. These youth encounter significant barriers as they develop into adulthood – oftentimes at no fault of their own – disconnected by factors such as poverty, homelessness, or difficulty reaching educational milestones due to health and educational disparities. Discrimination and historical legacies of institutionalized racism, too, have serious effects on the availability and accessibility of opportunities for our young people to thrive.
It is critical to understand that this 15,000 figure is likely a severe underestimate. Collecting data on this youth demographic is difficult, and it is very likely that this figure is not conclusive of the sheer number of youth whose comprehensive basic needs are unmet. Even if youth are working or in school, it does not mean they are thriving. For example, in a survey conducted at a drop-in shelter in Columbus, Ohio, nearly 25% of youth respondents reported having full-time employment.
Key data findings from the report highlight 6 specific areas of youth wellbeing that represent opportunities for intervention and greater support:
Effective interventions to empower our youth must be holistic and should not focus on any single area of their needs in isolation.
“The opportunity here to help youth thrive and flourish is tremendous,” says Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio’s Executive Director, Tracy Nájera. “We are learning every day about how young brains grow, how relationships with youth can be built and nourished, and how programs informed by youth voices can help plug more young people into resources and services they need. These things point us in a direction we can take to help youth power up a lifetime of engagement and opportunity.”
The voices of youth, who’s lived experiences are not fully captured by numbers alone, give CDF-Ohio’s report unique insight into the complex identities of youth in our community, the challenges they face in accessing services and programs to meet their basic needs, and what youth wish adults and community leaders knew about their lives.
We know that when youth perspectives and insights are sought and included, this not only improves the offerings and service delivery approaches themselves, it also makes young people likelier to stay engaged, leading to improved program and community outcomes. We should engage youth voices in devising solutions for issues that impact their lives whenever possible.
We also understand that adopting a trauma-informed approach ultimately makes systems work better for everyone. Youth described instances where they felt unwelcome or “burdensome” navigating services they need and misunderstood by professionals they interacted with who did not recognize the roots of trauma in their disruptive or inappropriate behavior when faced with stressful situations.
The following four key findings are informed by youth perspectives and can guide our community towards ways we can better support youth as they transition to adulthood:
When we ensure that young people get a strong and healthy foundation, this brings important, measurable benefits to our community. Helping them grow up to become active citizens, engaged socially and economically, and able to give back to their communities not only benefits us all, but it is the right thing to do.
Our entire community is needed for the important work that comes now. Our goal is to build a strong and lasting foundation of lifelong health and well-being for our young people and contribute to thriving communities with opportunities for all youth to flourish.
In this moment, as we are all bearing the strain this pandemic is having on our communities across the state, we can see that our Opportunity Youth are facing additional, and in some cases, more profound, obstacles. In order to address these obstacles, we draw on our conversations with youth, service providers and others in the field. We propose the following policy recommendations to support and invest in youth as we move forward:
“Flattening the curve” through stay at home orders is only effective if we ensure people have a home where they can safely shelter in place. Housing insecurity is highly prevalent among our Opportunity Youth population, especially those who have aged out of foster care. The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act is federal legislation that would provide housing vouchers for youth up to age 25 who have aged out of care, which could also be used as a mechanism to provide relief to those no longer able to reside on college campuses. Additionally, it is an important step forward to support foster youth by increasing funding by $500 million to the Chafee Independent Living Program, offering rapid transitional living options for current and former foster youth up to the age of 23. Investment in this program would also help with financial and employment assistance to foster youth during the pandemic. Additionally, it is recommended that we establish a moratorium on aging out of foster care for at least six months beyond the end of the immediate crisis to further prevent homelessness. As younger adults are more likely to be renters than own their own houses, a 90 day temporary suspension of rent at the national level would help all Americans dealing with financial hardship, but especially those in our younger Opportunity Youth population.
Ohio must move quickly to submit a plan to the USDA for Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) to provide additional money for food to families with children who qualify for free or reduced lunch. This would help our young parents with children and the families of older youth who are not receiving school breakfasts and lunches while schools are closed. At the federal level, an increase in SNAP of 15% is incredibly important as well. The first phases of the CARES Act helped many by expanding SNAP benefits so that everyone qualifying for SNAP now receives the maximum benefit. However, those who were already receiving the maximum benefit – arguably, our poorest and most vulnerable – saw no boost in SNAP assistance. We need a temporary, overall increase in SNAP dollars, and we need this increase to be tied to economic conditions and our recovery, not to an arbitrary end date.
We must leverage federal and state policies and resources to meet the immediate basic needs of older youth. Under the coronavirus stimulus bill, many within the Opportunity Youth age group are almost entirely excluded from receiving stimulus checks. Under these rules, any person age 17 to 24 who was claimed as a dependent won’t be eligible for the $1200 payment or the $500 child bonus which restricts the provision of this cash assistance to millions of young adults nationally – despite the fact that many are filed as dependents in order to qualify for federal student aid or to receive essential health care benefits. Additionally, this legislation excludes our undocumented youth population without social security numbers and also older youth with disabilities who are filed as dependents. We must increase financial assistance and resources to our older youth populations, especially since we know young adults are more likely to experience poverty, particularly our young parents who are supporting children of their own.
Especially during a pandemic, no one should have to make a choice between financial stability and medical care. We must expand health coverage to our uninsured young people and, at the very least, ensure that COVID-19 related treatments are paid for. In particular, all youth with experiences in foster care, who are over-represented among youth experiencing homelessness, should be provided with immediate Medicaid coverage. Young parents and expectant parents as well must have access to medical treatment for the wellbeing of themselves and their children. An increase in the federal share of Medicaid would assist Ohio with emergency fiscal assistance and help us extend coverage to vulnerable youth populations.
We face many challenges towards continue child welfare prevention and intervention services during this pandemic, but with less children coming into contact with mandatory reporters in schools and the impacts of stress from COVID-19 challenges, child welfare advocates are concerned about increased risks for child abuse and neglect. In reported incidences, Ohio has a state rate of abuse and neglect of every 10.7 per 1,000 children, and this type of adverse childhood experiences is sadly common for youth who are disengaged in their adolescence. We can make investments in keeping children safe during COVID-19 by increasing funding to the CAPTA Title II Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention (CB-CAP) grants and Title IV-B, Part 2, the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program (PSSF) and also by ensuring Ensure the FMAP rate increase is provided to the new Title IV-E Prevention Program. We must also take further steps to strengthen response and intervention systems to meet the challenges in light of COVID-19.
The CARES Act has thus far done too little to address the financial and workforce security of young people, particularly those who are not in traditional K-12 education or postsecondary education. We need more supports for youth involved in workforce and education training programs to support their development and not allow them to fall through the cracks. Data shows that young adults are disproportionately at risk of unemployment due to COVID-19, with nearly half of all workers 16-24 years of age employed in service-sector establishments. Workers in this sector are also disproportionately people of color and they are low-wage workers, likely without savings to rely on during this crisis. Investing in large scale subsidized jobs programs, including transitional jobs and summer jobs, can help more young people achieve stability through connection to the workforce during this time.
Equitable Investment and Opportunity
One crucial point that also must be addressed, which is incredibly relevant to the structural barriers our Opportunity Youth face, is equity. The COVID-19 crisis has not only revealed what disparities have existed in our society for communities of color and those of lower income, it has significantly widened these gaps, and if we approach any of the challenges facing us now, we must do so using an equity lens. We must address our history of health and educational disparities among young people, of employment discrimination and differences in opportunity based on race, ethnicity, and income by using data disaggregated to strategically target investments to historically under-resourced communities that we know are being disparately impacted by COVID-19.
We can rebuild our economy without leaving our most vulnerable youth behind. Our Opportunity Youth population today exists because our economic recovery strategy from ten years ago did not adequately elevate the livelihoods of our most vulnerable youth. By making critical investments in our youth as we deal with today’s crisis, we can ensure their wellbeing in the next 10 days, 10 weeks, and beyond, so that all youth have equitable opportunities to realize the happy, healthy adulthoods they aspire to.
As a follow-up to the publication of the report, CDF-Ohio partnered with community partners to host a series of conversations focused on this report and our steps moving forward to ensure the well-being of our community’s Opportunity Youth. Click here to learn more and watch these webinars, recorded on our KIDS COUNT Databook page.