Two thousand youth age out of foster care in New York City each year. They will be on their own to find work, a place to live, and trusted networks. Few will have had consistent role models or systematic exposure to financial skill building, putting them at risk for homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and delinquency.
The Youth Financial Empowerment (YFE) program, developed by the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity and administered by the NYC Administration for Children’s Service (ACS), targets youth 16 to 21 who are transitioning out of the city’s foster care system. Originally modeled on the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, the goal of this 5-year demonstration, launched in 2008, was to target 450 youth. ACS received a $176,470 Assets for Independence (AFI) grant in 2007, and an equal amount of non-Federal funding from the Center for Economic Opportunity.
The YFE program is structured in three tiers. The first tier consists of recruitment and participant engagement. Foster care agencies may refer youth to YFE. Interested youth attend a mandatory, 2-hour introduction to YFE and decide on their own whether to enroll. Financial education, the second tier, is mandatory prior to participants’ opening IDAs. A 6-month course focuses on core financial education topics. YFE staff and curriculum facilitators integrated the experience of being in foster care into the financial modules. The curriculum was field-tested in 2007, prior to the program’s debut, and continues to be modified. In the third tier, participants may open IDAs, with a 2:1 match rate. Youth may save up to $1,000 in their IDAs and receive up to $2,000 in match funds to use for microenterprise, a first home, or postsecondary education. The minimum monthly deposit is $10.
Getting the Word Out: Marketing to Foster Care Youth
Youth are key to recruiting other youth to YFE. During program events and orientations, YFE invites current participants to speak to other youth about their experiences. To utilize existing program infrastructure, YFE staff regularly participate in speaking engagements, deliver program orientation sessions, and distribute materials to agencies who themselves provide support services to foster youth. YFE will soon engage foster parents as another access point for reaching youth.
Surrounded by Services: Wrap-Around Support for Foster Youth
The YFE program utilizes a network of public-private partnerships to supplement YFE services to participants both pre- and post-asset purchase. Youth are paired with a mentor through Mentoring USA and receive information about scholarships for college or vocational training; the advisors guide the youth through the application and financial aid processes for postsecondary education. The Health and Human Services System connects youth to employment opportunities and subsidized internships. Finally, the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) works with landlords in New York City to arrange affordable housing for youth in the YFE program.
Overcoming Obstacles: Continuous Learning
YFE has learned from the challenges it encountered and adapted the program accordingly. Creating and implementing a completely new program required YFE to bring in additional in-house staff and several consultants. Foster youth tend to be more vulnerable to changes in the economy, and the recent recession led YFE staff to reevaluate their targets. Understanding the need to be flexible, realistic, and honest about targets, YFE staff reassess their targets every 6 months. To address low attendance and retention at financial education classes, YFE now offers services at scattered site agencies. Before YFE staff could find a management information system that met their program needs, they diligently captured their data in Excel spreadsheets until implementing a data tool in August 2010.
Conclusion: Progress for Youth Financial Empowerment
With the infrastructure of a large child welfare organization behind it, Youth Financial Empowerment has recruited 300 foster youth to attend orientation, led 159 to complete 12 hours of financial education, and helped 120 to open IDAs. Youth are just beginning to complete savings and make their asset purchases. To build on their successes, YFE staff members are participating in strategic planning to map out how to continue funding and program operations once the current demonstration ends in 2012. They hope to create a centralization and sustainability plan that incorporates other agencies that have the capacity to take on some of this work.