April 01, 2013

Making Ends Meet

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The challenges facing lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth in the child welfare system are well-known. Less known is how they fare after aging out of the system. Many LGB youth age out, rather than find permanent placements, because greater placement instability prevents them from forming permanent connections to supportive adults.

The gap in research led researchers from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to study the economic well-being of LGB youth after aging out of foster care. The researchers found the economic picture for LGB youth does not differ much from their heterosexual peers. LGB youth are largely on par with heterosexual youth when it comes to housing, education, and assets/debts. However, the researchers pointed to lower earnings, higher public benefits receipt, signs of economic hardship, and greater food insecurity as areas where LGB youths’ economic well-being are weak.

The Study

The researchers analyzed data from the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, a longitudinal study that followed a sample of youth from Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin as they moved from foster care to lives on their own between 2002- 2011. LGB youth comprised 11-15% of the sample, with changes over time as some youth changed how they identified.

A group of 591 youth who had aged out were interviewed when they were 21 years old. Of these youth 74% were heterosexual, 11% were LGB, and 15% were unspecified. While the demographic characteristics and placement histories of the LGB and heterosexual groups were similar, there were two distinctions: 1) young women represented two-thirds of the LGB group, but only half of the heterosexual group; 2) LGB youth experienced more placements than their heterosexual peers.


The researchers studied several domains of economic well-being. Findings for each follow:

Housing – LGB youth shared similar living arrangements as their heterosexual peers after leaving care. About 45% of both groups had their own place, while 25% of both groups lived with a biological parent or relative.

Homelessness – None of the LGB youth were homeless when interviewed at age 21, but 22% reported being homeless for at least one night since aging out (compared to 17% for heterosexual youth).

Education – Educational attainment was similar for both groups. 85% of LGB youth, compared with 76% of heterosexual youth, had a high school diploma. 31% of LGB youth, compared with 30% of heterosexual youth, completed at least one year of college.

Employment/earnings – 60% of the LGB youth had jobs at age 21 and were working 36 hours/week at around $7.82/hour. Twenty-five percent had no earnings over the past year. Heterosexual youth were not more likely to have jobs, but did earn an average of $1 more per hour ($9.04).

Government Benefits – LGB and heterosexual youth were just as likely to have received government benefits in the past year, with LGB youth more likely to receive Supplemental Security Income and food stamps.

Economic hardships – LGB youth were more likely to experience at least one of five signs of economic hardship (not enough money for rent, inability to pay utility bill, utility turned off, phone disconnected, eviction) than heterosexual youth (61% compared to 47%). Not enough rent money was common among LGB youth.

Food security – LGB youth were more likely to meet the criteria for low or very low food security compared to heterosexual youth.

Assets/debts – There was no difference between the two groups of youth related to assets and debts. Slightly over half of both groups had bank accounts, and half had debt.

Lessons Learned

No job/low pay often leads to dependence. The researchers concluded that LGB youth aging out of foster care may have trouble achieving self-sufficiency as they transition to adulthood. Those who lack jobs, or who are working at low-paying jobs, are more dependent on government assistance and show signs of economic hardship, food insecurity, and homelessness.

Education boosts future outcomes. Despite challenges, researchers were encouraged by the high numbers of LGB youth who had a high school diploma or GED, which combined with higher education for many, boded well for their future economic well-being.

All youth need help with the transition. Similarities between LGB and heterosexual youth who leave care suggest that all youth aging would benefit from interventions aimed at improving self-sufficiency. Interventions that target education, job security, affordable housing, financial planning/budgeting, and available public benefits are key.

 Amy Dworsky, Chapin Hall, University of Chicago. “The Economic Well-Being of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care.” Mathematica Policy Research Issue Brief, January 2013. http://www.chapinhall.org/research/brief/economic-well-being-lgb-youth-transitioning-out-foster-care