As We Count Kids, Remember Young Adults

The annual and valuable KIDS COUNT Data Book was released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and it got me thinking about a challenge that confronts those who are working to help the nation’s youth.

The challenge is familiar to anyone implementing Ready by 21®, which has led communites around the country to extend their supports to young people beyond age 18. But the Ready by 21 approach stresses that those supports cannot be abruptly ended at age 21, or we risk abandoning those who have just reached readiness or just embarked down the road of success. That success – in college, work or life – typically takes several more years.

Which brings us to KIDS COUNT. As you know, the Data Book reports state-by-state statistics on 10 key child and youth indicators. Each year the book gives youth workers and advocates data to substantiate what we see: Child and youth well-being is improving overall, but the disparities – between states, between racial and ethnic groups, between income groups – are growing. Plus, the recession threw more children into poverty.

The data are accompanied by a thoughtful essay, which this year focuses on the worsening picture for vulnerable families. Patrick McCarthy, the foundation’s president, astutely summarizes the statistics on families who’ve been hit by unemployment, foreclosures and loss of health benefits; recounts the research documenting how economic hardship affects child well-being; and recommends policies to reduce the disparities that affect children’s life chances.

Equally powerful are five family stories that are interspersed throughout the report. Two of the stories are about young people with children, which brings me to the challenge I mentioned earlier:

  • Rosa Huestis – a former foster youth in Vermont who, at age 20, got help covering her housing and education costs thanks to laws that offer financial incentives for states to extend benefits to certain foster youth beyond 18.  Huestis (now 22), her boyfriend and their 9-month-old are living in New Hampshire and “squeaking by” since both were laid off from their jobs. Unemployment, health insurance and food assistance benefits keep them afloat while they hold onto their dreams of getting more education.
  • Charles Leach, age 21 and Jessika Campbell, age 24 – a Georgia couple who both work to support Sonny, their 18-month-old son. Their state-subsidized child care helps them stretch their dollars and ensures that Sonny gets high quality learning experiences. But Charles, whose career has gotten a boost from an intensive job training program, has medical bills stemming from a traffic accident that occurred earlier this year when he was unemployed and uninsured.

These are compelling stories of families whose dreams and mettle have been tested by the economy but whose situations would have been worse without public benefits. Such stories can be redoubled if this country makes just and prudent policy decisions in the months ahead.

More than that, however, these stories repeat a crucial point that is often lost in our focus on kids: Investing in the next generation requires investing not only in children and youth, but in young adults as well.

Three of the five stories directly involve young people ages 16 to 24: Charles and Rosa (mentioned above) are young adults with young children. There is also a story about Mary, whose benefits supplement her son’s college scholarship. The other two stories involve younger children who, as McCarthy’s essay rightly argues, should be the target of a “two-generational strategy.”

To be sure, young families are not the only vulnerable families. But there is no doubt that young families and the young people who each year start new families are caught in the crosshairs of unemployment, uninsuredness and undereducation.

We need to highlight their statistics, showcase their stories, and ensure that our policy recommendations include strategies that address their needs for job training, educational stipends, extended health and social benefits, employer incentives and paid service opportunities.

We need, in short, to pull out the stops to be sure that they are not only ready by 21, but also successful by 26.