Missed Opportunities in Providing Pandemic Relief Funds

September 22, 2021

By Sarah Wasch, MSW, Field Center Program Manager

At the end of this month, any pandemic relief funds earmarked for young adults aging out of foster care not distributed by states as part of the 2020 Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act are in danger of being forfeited and returned to the U.S. Treasury. Some states are no longer accepting applications, but many states are allowing youth to apply for assistance through September 30th, 2021. (Older foster youth and those who were in foster care after age 14 but are currently under age 27 should immediately check their eligibility for funds here: https://www.checkforus.org/). Given this tight, and arbitrary, timeline, this month’s blog elevates the need for urgent action on the part of advocates and explores the disparity in how pandemic relief funds were utilized nationwide.

Though the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act was signed into law as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 116-260) in December of 2020, the pandemic relief money designated for older foster youth and young adults (totaling $400 million nationally) was not distributed to states until the end of February of 2021, and release of the funds directly to current and former foster youth was only approved between April and September. Following allotment of the funds, each state was left to their own devices in regards to developing a distribution plan, including eligibility, payment amount, notification for eligible applicants and any restrictions on the use of funds, if direct payments were made at all.

These differential approaches are baffling. The challenges experienced by youth in foster care were well-documented nearly a year into the pandemic. Numerous organizations including Think of Us, Foster Club, and our own Field Center research clearly described the economic hardships that transition-aged foster youth were facing, including housing instability, food insecurity, unpaid utility bills, growing educational expenses, difficulty obtaining parenting or personal supplies, and more. While the available data showed that older youth and youth who were no longer in care had even greater financial needs than those still in care, giving states the option to exclude youth in care from pandemic relief funds created a deep inequity between localities. For the 19-year-old in foster care who indicated in April 2020, “I lost my job and my foster parents are threatening to kick me out if I get a new one, but I need a job to pay my bills”, her ability to access pandemic funds was directly related to where she lived and the eligibility criteria set by her state of residence.

The cost of living is likely more divided along urban and rural lines than by state boundaries, but alas, each state was tasked with determining how much aid to give on a statewide basis, if that state even chose to use its allotment to award pandemic payments. The determinations varied widely, and although it would be impossible to summarize each state’s approach* here, one thing is clear: youth in foster care are yet again subject to the ultimate location lottery, with their home state’s policies determining their services.

For example, in November of 2020, one month before the Consolidated Appropriations Act was even signed, recognizing the broad impacts of COVID-19 on its residents, New Jersey drew on existing funding to arrange for one-time pandemic payments of $1,850 for its transition aged foster youth. In contrast, most jurisdictions waited until well after the Consolidated Appropriations Act funds were not only announced, but disbursed, to even establish a mechanism for applications, and award amounts and timelines varied greatly. Minnesota’s pandemic payments to eligible foster youth, beginning in July of 2021, was $200. Iowa’s began in May of 2021 and was $750. New York utilized a variable funding method to ensure that the most vulnerable youth received a cash payment, with funding amounts ranging from $1,050 to $1,750 per applicant. Sometimes, like in our own state of Pennsylvania, the pandemic payment system even varied by county! (For example, Allegheny County, where the state’s second largest city of Pittsburgh is located, provided at least $1,000 for eligible youth. Philadelphia County began with payments of only $200 to a limited group of eligible youth in July of 2021, but in August of 2021 amended criteria to include more potential applicants who could now receive a total of $800). In sum, keeping track of who got what and where was nearly impossible, and equity between service areas was non-existent.

There is so much we can’t control in life. People cannot control where they are born, or what kind of parent-child relationship they will have. Children cannot control whether or not they enter foster care, or even what kind of placement they will have. But for a system whose job is to serve and protect the very children in its care, shouldn’t we at least be able to control the services that are provided? We must listen to the young people who have experienced foster care, and respond to their needs. This 20-year-old expressed it best at the beginning of the pandemic: “I am afraid that if the stay-at-home orders are still in place when I turn 21, then I will age out of the system and lose all of my support, especially financially.”

As September comes to a close, it is critical to ensure that all eligible young adults are provided with information about pandemic relief funds in their state. Advocates and professionals should look for continued opportunities to advocate for the passage of additional legislation and equitable policies that increase protections and financial supports to youth aging out of foster care past September 30th nationwide.

*Think of Us, a Research and Development Lab for transforming child welfare, created the Check for Us website that spreads the word about available funding and simplifies the process for youth to apply. The State Resources and Eligibility Page provides all known available information about pandemic relief funds in a state-by-state list.
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