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Foster youth bill can make contrasts not quite so sharp

Much of what we learn in early childhood comes through contrasts. I taught my kids about opposites by reading books like "Go, Dog. Go!" with its entertaining juxtapositions of "red dog on top" and "yellow dog underneath."

Some contrasts, of course, are not so fun.

Think of the foster care system. Although much has been done to improve it, life in foster care remains a stark contrast to life in a stable home.

There is perhaps nowhere in the entire foster child experience where the contrast is greater than the 18th birthday. For other kids, it's a celebration and new-found freedom. For the foster kid, it is the moment they "age out of the system."

Just think about that terminology. It is as cold as it is accurate. The word "out," as in "get out," stands as an exclamation point for the situation. One day, they are supported legally and financially by the state. The next day, they have "aged out." On their own.

The invisible support of family is not there to brace them up. And too often the results are sad, even tragic.

Studies show that up to 70 percent of the inmates in the state penitentiary system spent at least part of their youth in the foster care system. Nearly half of foster youth reach adulthood without graduating high school.

That lack of education may explain other troubling statistics: On average, emancipated foster youth earn only about $6,000 a year during their first few years as adults. Nearly half of them have periods of unemployment during that time, and more than half spend at least part of their first year homeless.

Only 4 out of 10 foster youth leave their foster homes with even $250 to their name. Almost 7 out of 10 have no idea where they're going to live.

And these are children that have been our collective responsibility. Of course, we can't support them forever. But I believe they deserve a better send off than they're getting now.

We can soften the blow by giving a little bit more support during that first year of transition. That's the point of Assembly Bill 719, which earned amazing bipartisan support as it went through the Legislature. It now sits on the governor's desk.

AB 719 would give foster kids 12 months of food stamps for the first year after they "age out" of the system. Hopefully, this little bit of support can cut down on the prevalence of homelessness. Hopefully, by taking care of a basic need like food, we can help them build a more stable existence.

The best part is that it doesn't cost the state any money. We use federal dollars – dollars that we already pay to Washington, and that too often fail to return to California. We help these kids, we bring some of our tax money back where it came from, and we help keep cash registers ringing in grocery stores.

That's why the executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association called it "probably the best thing the Legislature will do for foster children all year," and why the California State PTA supports the bill.

So now, it's up to the governor. He can sign the bill and let the federal government help these kids, or he can let them once again be victims of adult conflicts that are not of their making.

Go, Governor. Go!

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