Santa Clara County approves nation’s first basic income for foster youth
Supervisor Cindy Chavez speaks with Dontae Lartigue and Christina Anaya during a recess at a Board of Supervisors meeting in this file photo. Photo by Kyle Martin.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the nation’s first basic income program for youths who are transitioning out of foster care. The county will provide $1,000 monthly cash payments from June 2020 through May 2021.

Many youths struggle to find housing and jobs as they leave foster care and transition into adulthood. County officials hope the pilot program, which was introduced by Supervisor Dave Cortese last year, will provide stability for youths who are 21 to 24 years old. Santa Clara County leaders identified 72 youths who are eligible – some of whom have left the county’s foster care system while others are still receiving support services.

“This could be the foundation of a new beginning for the foster youth community,” said Dontae Lartigue, a former foster youth and co-founder of Razing The Bar, a nonprofit that supports foster youths.

Lartigue struggled to make ends meet when he left foster care in 2009 at the age of 18. He worked at Walmart as an auto technician, making about $12 an hour. Lartigue spent more than a year couch-surfing and sleeping in his car, struggling to find housing with a limited income. Without rental and credit history, landlords often turned him away.

“One of the biggest barriers that foster youths have is housing,” Lartigue, 29, said.

But if the county had given Lartigue $1,000 when he was a foster youth, he admitted he might have spent it on drugs. That’s why coaching youths on how to best save and spend their money will be crucial to helping them get up on their feet, he said.

Mentors from the county’s pilot project will check in with young adults every three months to improve their financial literacy. The county will also evaluate the program to determine whether it’s sustainable and how foster youth benefitted from the program.

“Creating a pilot program to provide a basic income to these individuals will allow the county to better support their transition out of our foster care system and to help them find a stable path to success, wellbeing and independence,” Cortese said in a statement.

The county’s cash assistance program may come as much-needed reprieve for the youths who are entering a dismal job market. The economy has plunged during the pandemic, leaving the county’s general fund with a projected deficit of about $246 million. It’s likely the largest budget deficit in the county’s history, according to County Executive Jeff Smith.

“It’s a big problem … ” Smith told San José Spotlight. “We’re going to try to utilize as much one-time funding as we can to maintain ongoing operations, so that we don’t have a crash landing.”

Committing $900,000 to the basic income program, the county joins the growing number of local, state and nationwide movements to provide people with basic incomes. The city of Stockton launched an 18-month program in 2019, giving $500 payments for 125 Stockton residents. Assemblymember Evan Low introduced a bill that would provide $1,000 a month to many Californians who are 18 years of age or older. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is also working on a new initiative to give 20 residents in upstate New York $500 a month for the next five years.

Bridging the digital divide 

As schools, clinics and employers have transitioned to operating remotely during the pandemic, families with limited internet connection and electronic devices are being left behind.

To bridge the digital divide, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a proposal by Cortese to provide devices and internet coverage to 15,000 of the county’s neediest families, many of whom receive assistance like food stamps and state-funded medical insurance. The county will provide about 11,000 hotspots and 14,000 laptops or tablets to the families in partnership with the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

“While internet connectivity may seem at first blush non-essential or well beyond the purview of the county government,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said during the board meeting. “This pandemic has shown us that people are being left further and further behind. As the safety net of our vulnerable populations, I believe that the county does bear some responsibility to play a role in moving toward more equitable access for all of our residents.”

Local school districts have already begun distributing hotspots and devices for families. In the San Jose Unified School District, where nearly half of its students are low-income, school officials say they have distributed more than 3,200 Chromebooks laptops and almost 900 hotspots since schools shut down. In the East Side Union High School District, where more than half of the students are low-income, the district has delivered about 3,000 Chromebooks and under 50 hotspots, school officials said.

In wealthier school districts, like the Los Altos School District, there are still about 5 percent of students who are low-income, and officials say they have delivered about 190 devices and more than 40 hotspots.

Jessica Speiser, board trustee of the Los Altos School District, commended the board’s decision Tuesday. Raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, Speiser said her teachers and education helped her realize her potential. Every student in the county deserves an education and a chance to succeed, she added.

“It was my education that got me up and out… ” Speiser said. “I absolutely know that if children are given that chance, they can do anything.”

Contact Nicholas Chan at nicholas4b@gmail.com or follow @nicholaschanhk on Twitter.

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