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Coming of Age: Employment Outcomes for Youth Who Age Out of Foster Care Through Their Middle Twenties

Publication Date
Mar 14, 2008



A youths departure from home marks the beginning of adulthood and a new stage in a young adults life. This critical juncture and the surrounding years, often referred to as the transition to adulthood, is increasingly recognized as a distinct developmental stage between adolescence and adulthood (Arnett, 2004). Youth who reach this stage and are living in foster care are often at a significant disadvantage. In 2005, over 24,000 youths found themselves in this circumstance (DHHS, 2006). They aged out of the foster care system and entered into the world of adulthood relatively alone.

Studies of former foster youth who age out of care find that these youth generally experience high unemployment, unstable employment patterns, and earn very low incomes in the period between ages 18 and 21 (Cook, 1991; Courtney et al., 2001; Dworsky and Courtney, 2001; Goerge, Bilaver, Lee, Needell, Brookhart and Jackman, 2002). The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) requested this study to examine employment and earnings outcomes for youth, through their mid-twenties, who age out of foster care. The key question and focus of the study is whether foster youth catch up or continue to experience less employment and significantly lower earnings than their peers even into their mid-twenties.

The study linked child welfare, Unemployment Insurance (UI), and public assistance administrative data to assess employment outcomes and welfare receipt for youth who age out of foster care. Child welfare data allow researchers to identify youth who age out of foster care, while the UI data provide information on employment and earnings. Public assistance data reveal later welfare receipt.  Information is linked between sources using youths social security numbers. Analyses are conducted in three states: California, Minnesota, and North Carolina. The sample of interest is youth who were 17 years old and in foster care in one of the participating states on December 31,1998, and who eventually aged out of care. A comparison group of youth from low-income families is created using the public assistance data, and baseline national estimates are derived from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97). Descriptive, multivariate, and trajectory analysis techniques are employed. Youth outcomes are assessed from age 16 to the first quarter of age 24.

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Key Findings

Youth who age out of foster care continue to experience poor employment outcomes at age 24

At age 24, youth who age out of foster care do not fare well on a variety of employment outcomes. Compared to youth nationally and even youth from low-income families, they are less likely to be employed or employed regularly, and, not surprisingly, they earn very little. At age 24, average monthly earnings for youth who age out of foster care who worked are $690 in California, $575 in Minnesota, and $450 in North Carolina, compared to $1,535 for youth nationally. Employment and earnings differences between youth who age out of foster care and youth from low-income families remain in California and Minnesota even when controlling for demographic factors. Case history factors do not appear to play an important role in influencing employment outcomes.

Youth who age out of foster care tend to follow one of four employment trajectories as they transition to adulthood

Youth who age out of foster care exhibit four distinct patterns in connecting to the workforce. Overall about one-third to one-half of these youth follows a path that leads to relatively positive employment outcomes by age 24. At the same time, the other half to two-thirds of these youth exhibit patterns leading to poorer outcomes at age 24.

Positive outcomes at age 24

  • Consistently Connected:  These youth maintain relatively high probabilities of employment between the ages of 18 and 24, and their average earnings are comparable to youth nationally. This group appears to begin connecting to the workforce prior to age 18. This group represents one-sixth to one-quarter of the youth in the states (25 percent in California, 22 percent in Minnesota, and 16 percent in North Carolina). 
  • Later Connected:  Youth in this group have a slow start, but steadily increase their probability of employment and earnings throughout their early twenties. Their average earnings do not reach levels comparable to youth nationally but do show an upward trend. This group does not appear connected to the workforce prior to age 18. These youth represent one-sixth to one-fifth of youth who age out of foster care in the study states (20 percent in California, 21 percent in Minnesota, and 16 percent in North Carolina).

Poor outcomes at age 24

  • Never Connected:  These youth have very low probabilities of employment and hardly any earnings at any time between ages 18 and 24 or prior to age 18. This group represents one-fifth to one-third of the youth who age out of foster care in these states (33 percent in California, 29 percent in Minnesota, and 22 percent in North Carolina). Some portion of these youth may not be covered in the earnings data. 
  • Initially Connected:  Youth in this group begin making connections to the workforce prior to adulthood and maintain a high probability of employment through their late teens. Their probabilities of employment then decline rapidly in their early twenties. The average earnings for this group never get very high, which might explain the drop in employment, if lower earnings result in less incentive to continue working. The drop-off in employment for some portion of these youth might also be explained by changes to jobs not covered by UI data, moves out of state, incarceration, or child-bearing. This group represents one-fifth to almost one-half of the youth in these states (22 percent in California, 29 percent in Minnesota, and 46 percent in North Carolina).

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Pathways to adult services

Extending services to youth after age 18 is the focus of many recent initiatives and efforts to support youth aging out of foster care. Findings from this report would suggest, however, that risk for these youth extend beyond even age 21. Working at age 21 does not appear to be a guarantee that youth will sustain employment through age 24. In fact, significant changes in employment trajectories appear to occur for many youth who age out of foster care right around age 21. Some portion of these youth may need additional assistance staying connected to the labor market or accessing adult service systems.

Importance of ages 16 to 18

Ages 16 to 18 are a period of significant employment activity for many youth aging out of foster care. Rapid increases in employment occur for consistently connected youth and initially connected youth between the ages of 16 and 18. Similarly, results show that employment prior to age 18 is associated with positive employment outcomes at age 24 for youth in California, Minnesota, and North Carolina. This evidence suggests that helping youth connect to the workforce prior to adulthood may have benefits later. 

Tailoring programs

As programs to serve former foster youth continue to evolve, policymakers and practitioners might consider strategies for tailoring programs to best meet the needs of youth on different trajectories. For example, those youth initially connected to the labor market exhibit a desire to work early on, but may need additional training or education to find sustainable, long-term employment. Those who are later connected may require extra supports while they are in school or receiving training in preparation for later connection to the workforce. For those youth who are never connected, the challenge may be finding them and identifying their service needs.  Are they homeless, disabled, incarcerated, or living with their biological parents or extended family? The Chafee National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) could be an important tool to help states identify the types of youth that follow different paths and their service needs. This database is designed to identify the numbers and characteristics of youth receiving Independent Living services, track the type and quantity of those services, and develop outcome measures to assess state performance in serving these youth.

Future research

This study analyzed outcomes for youth who aged out of foster care in the late 1990s, prior to the passage of the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, which strengthened independent living programs for youth in foster care and focused attention on this population. In the future, researchers may want to examine later cohorts of youth who age out of foster care that may have benefited from the Chafee Foster Care Independence programs. With each additional year of earnings data, another age cohort can be analyzed. Researchers could also examine the role of education and other service systems in supporting these youth. Further exploration is also needed to understand the different employment paths these youth follow. For example, what are the resiliency factors that enable youth to age out of foster care and connect consistently to the workforce? This group could provide insights into the factors that help youth aging out of foster care succeed.


Youth | Low-Income Populations