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Is 30 the New 21? New Research Shows What Young Adults Really Need

January 29, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

A key argument for the extension of foster care to the age of 21 was a recognition that American social norms have changed significantly in recent decades.  That is, while conventional wisdom, and law, dictated that American young people were adults at the age of 18, most people continue receiving some sort of support from the parents well past the age 18. Whether it’s help with rent, a place to stay during breaks in education and employment, or the myriad other ways families help their adult children, it was hard to argue that the foster care system should shut itself off to youth at age 18.

New research suggests, however, that California’s policy to extend foster care to age 21 may not have gone far enough.  In a recent article, Dr. Diana Divecha summarizes the latest research on the extent of parental support provided to adult children today and the results are surprising. According to the article, a majority of young adults today receive assistance from their parents, with the average parent spending about $38,000 on each child in the years between, ages 18 and 34. High-income parents spend three times more than low-income parents.

In addition to money, parents are also putting in time, providing an average of 367 hours of help annually per child, even when their adult child lives away from their home. That’s an average of 7 hours a week of free support provided by parents to their presumably “independent” adult children!

And, then, of course, there’s housing.  The article provides the latest data on how many young adults are living at home, with nearly a fifth of all American men age 24 to 34 living with parents, while 10 percent of young women do.

Together, this data paints a powerful picture of the length and extent of parental support in the United States today. No longer simply ushering children across the threshold to age 18, parents remain deeply connected to their adult children, providing very real support in the form of money, time and housing well into their 30’s.

What does this mean for youth in foster care?

First, it means that while our state’s efforts to support youth in foster care to age 21 are a step in the right direction, what we offer is far less than the level of support provided to the average young adult by their parent.  For many youth in extended foster care, their only supportive service will be a monthly visit from their social worker and a court review hearing every six months. Even those living in more intensive settings will not likely get 7 hours of help every week, like the average adult child. Hold the level of support received by a foster youth up against what the average young adult is getting, and it’s clear that foster youth remain disadvantaged.

Next, it reminds us that ultimately the real goal of the child welfare system is to ensure all children have a family to support them through young adulthood and beyond. Not a foster family or even a legal guardian to age 18, but a permanent family that will offer hands-on assistance and financial support throughout the many ups and downs young adults experience. For most children in foster care, that family will be their biological one, when they are safely reunified. However, over 5,000 youth “age out” of foster care annually in California without achieving permanence. These children will face the challenges of young adulthood and beyond without the support that most adult children receive.

Not addressed in the report was the extensive support that families provide adult children who have children of their own. This includes everything that most adult children receive, as well as childcare, parenting advice, love and encouragement. Research from the University of Chicago indicates that with the extension of foster care to age 21 the incidence of parenting youth in foster care will increase significantly. Given that, it may be time to re-think how we support parenting youth in foster care and bring our approach to this highly vulnerable group in line with modern norms.

Just as age 18 was not the magic number, neither is age 21. Let’s keep working together to make sure the foster care system meets the real needs of young adults.


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