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.
“IT’S GOING TO BE INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT TO MAKE SURE YOUTH UNDERSTAND THAT THE TIME LIMIT AND WORK REQUIREMENTS NO LONGER APPLY TO THEM.” — JENNY POKEMPNER, YOUTH LAW CENTER
Given the low enrollment in SNAP, advocates say state agencies need to be proactive, especially when program rules further complicate access. Some have found ways to boost enrollment. In California, foster youth applications to the state’s SNAP program, CalFresh, rose steeply after a 2009 policy allowed their applications to be submitted 30 days before they became independent. Statewide, enrollment jumped from 5% of those eligible to 20%, with some counties reaching nearly 70%.
Jenny Pokempner, senior policy director for the Youth Law Center, called the new federal reform a “great opportunity” to support foster youth’s successful transition to adulthood, since many may be eligible for SNAP but face barriers to receiving the critical benefit.
“It’s going to be incredibly important to make sure youth understand that the time limit and work requirements no longer apply to them and they should go apply again for SNAP, because this rule has changed for them,” Pokempner said.
The Imprint queried the government SNAP offices in a sampling of states — Utah, Idaho, Texas, Washington and Maryland — to find out whether preparations are under way to get the word out to foster youth ahead of Friday’s rule change. None of the three that responded had finalized updates to their application process or outreach efforts.
A Maryland Department of Human Services spokesperson said the agency plans to update its websites, launch a social media campaign, and spread the word through the independent living program’s coordinators. In that state, more than 700 youth ages 18 to 20 exited foster care between 2021 and 2023. Roughly 920 young people 17 and older are expected to exit soon.
A spokesperson for Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services agency is among states that had not finalized plans, estimating that “roughly 350 people could benefit from the SNAP program’s new exceptions, due to their foster care backgrounds.”
A spokesperson for Texas Health and Human Services said the agency expects the number of newly eligible youth to be “low,” and that it “intends to update public websites and collaborate with stakeholders to ensure eligible former foster youth are notified.”
Already, the agency includes a question on its joint Medicaid and SNAP application that asks current or former foster youth to identify themselves. The spokesperson referred a reporter to the state’s Your Texas Benefits website for further information. (As of Wednesday morning, that site does not appear to mention the new exception for foster youth, homeless people or veterans.)
Rachel Cooper, who oversees health and food policy for the advocacy group Every Texan, said she’s cautiously optimistic that her state will be able to identify eligible former foster youth because they are often part of the Medicaid program. But she said that will require cooperation from a variety of public service agencies.
“It’s very, very much dependent on our ability to get the word out, not just to eligible foster youth, but to all the folks who work with them,” Cooper said. “Any agency, any group that supports young people, who helped them transition out of foster care — all of those agencies need to know about these rule changes so that they can help their young people navigate and apply, because it is complicated.”
Lack of information is one hurdle, another is confusion over documentation requirements. Youth advocates want officials to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidance. That agency urges states to accept as proof former foster youth’s statements that they were in care through age 18, and only require additional evidence if the information seems questionable. The department also recommends data-sharing among state agencies, so that former foster youth can be automatically identified and more seamlessly enrolled.
People with disabilities have faced similar challenges accessing benefits.
“We’ve seen that a lot of people have not been able to avail themselves, or they’ve been cut off from the program because they haven’t been able to prove their disability, said Gina Plata-Nino, the SNAP deputy director for the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C. “The hoops that you have to jump are going to vary because you have states who have made it a priority to make sure that this is as accessible as possible — and other states that are just going to make it as cumbersome as possible.”
Aya Diab contributed to this report.
Article can be found at imprintnews.org.