In a rare mention of foster youth during a White House briefing in May, a spokesperson for President Joe Biden made the case for easing the daily struggles of young adults aging out of the U.S. foster care system.
New federal rules will soon expand work requirements for food stamps for more unemployed adults. But “at the President’s insistence,” the White House official said, a deal had been struck with Republicans to create an exception to the rule for former foster youth aged 18 to 24, along with veterans and homeless people of all ages.
Beginning Friday, more adults between ages 50 and 54 will be required to work or volunteer in order to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, for longer than three-months. But in a nation where many young adults raised in government custody face food insecurity each day, those restrictions will not apply to former foster youth. Their advocates described the easing of federal policy as a major achievement.
“Seeing Congress and the administration rally like this gives me hope. It says ‘We’re paying attention,’” Sixto Cancel, a former foster youth and CEO of the nonprofit Think of Us said in an email. Cancel credited foster youth who shared their stories and advocated for themselves for the policy change. “When you face the stark realities — like the daily struggles of our foster youth with basic needs like food — the importance of these measures becomes undeniable.”
Exempting foster youth from SNAP’s time limits received support from both political parties, with lawmakers noting the shortcomings of current support for young adults with limited family support.
“We are failing many of these kids,” Indiana Republican Rep. Erin Houchin told NPR this summer. “Including a provision in this bill to provide support to them as they move into adulthood is the least we can do.”
Last year, nearly 40,000 young people aged out of foster care some time after their 18th birthday, according to federal data. It’s unclear how many could be assisted in the future under the newly relaxed SNAP rules, but the numbers could be in the thousands each year.
There is little research on this population’s access to adequate nutrition. In late 2020, Think of Us, a research and advocacy organization, conducted a survey of more than 15,000 current or former foster youth 18 to 24 years old, finding that a quarter reported “high” food insecurity. Nearly 10% reported “It is a struggle to eat everyday.”
Yet they did not always receive the nutrition benefits they were entitled to. In 2019, one quarter of 19-year-old former foster youth reported experiencing homelessness, while just 18% reported receiving “public food assistance,” according to a federal survey conducted for the National Youth In Transition Database. Roughly half of the thousands of young people surveyed had at least part-time employment.
In Texas — home to one of the largest foster care populations in the country — more than a thousand young people between the ages of 18 and 21 leave the system each year. In that state, nearly a third of 19-year-old former foster youth reported experiencing homelessness. Yet while two-thirds had some level of employment income, just 15% received food stamps, according to the national database.