This post is by staff writer April Dykman.

When Eddye was a senior in high school, her goal was to save money to buy a car.

“I wanted to make sure I had reliable transportation for college,” she says.

That’s a pretty common goal for someone her age. But Eddye faced more hurdles than the average kid. Eddye was “aging out” of the foster care system, which meant she would soon be on her own.

Typically, someone in her situation has to save up for a car by herself, in addition to handling the rest of her finances and responsibilities. Usually that means racking up a lot of debt to pay for it all.

And since Eddye lives in an area without a good public transportation system, a car is a necessity. Without one, her job options are severely limited and getting to class would be difficult.

So what causes kids like Eddye to wind up in situations like that?

The problem is that foster kids aren’t taught personal finance skills

When most foster kids age out of the system, they haven’t been taught basic money skills. They don’t have any experience paying bills or saving money. They don’t even have a checking account.

That’s actually the norm for all high school kids, as even top-rated schools don’t have a personal finance requirement. In fact, only 13 states require high school students to take a personal finance class to graduate, according a survey by the Council for Economic Education.

But a financial education is especially critical for kids aging out of foster care for a few reasons.

For one thing, foster kids usually don’t have a safety net. If they lose their job and can’t pay rent, that could mean no money for groceries, losing electricity, or even homelessness. After all, they don’t have parents who can help them make ends meet. “At 18, a young person is not really ready to be on their own,” says Christine Johnson, who has worked in juvenile justice and child welfare for the last 16 years. “[The age 18] is just a number that we’ve used, and we’ve seen disastrous results.”

And if they do go back to their biological family, it can be just as detrimental. “Those are the people they had to get away from in the first place,” says Eddye. “A lot of times they take advantage of you, and then you’re also relying on their financial choices instead of learning how to manage money on your own.”

Also, the lack of a bank account puts kids’ savings at risk. “I know one girl who’s a single mom, and she kept her money in a shoebox under the bed,” says Eddye. “She was robbed and basically had to start all over.” Eddye says that she knows quite a few people who stash money in shoeboxes and sock drawers because they don’t have a bank account.

So why isn’t more being done to get kids ready to live on their own?

Two reasons why foster kids aren’t taught personal finance skills

There are a couple of reasons this problem occurs.

First, young people in foster care don’t get much hands-on experience with money. “Foster parents are encouraged to give kids an allowance,” says Christine. “But the kids tell us that rarely happens.” That means that many of them enter the real world without any experience earning or saving money.

Second, foster kids don’t get much of a personal finance education. They don’t have parents to show them how a checking account works or to teach them about the importance of saving. And it’s difficult for kids in foster care to open and maintain a bank account when they’re moving from place to place, with different guardians and different rules.

And Christine says that “the last thing on a social worker’s mind is a kid’s personal finance education and opening a savings account.” There are just too many bigger, more pressing issues that social workers have to deal with.

So what can be done to give foster kids a solid personal finance foundation?

Opportunity Passport bridges the gap

Eddye’s story isn’t that of the typical kid aging out of the system.

After she turned 18, her caseworker told her about a program called Opportunity Passport that would match every dollar she saved, up to $1,000 per year. All she had to do was complete some personal finance classes.

“The classes didn’t seem like a huge thing,” says Eddye. “But when I learned about the match, I thought, ‘OK, I’m game.’”

Eddye used matched funds to purchase a car and a laptop. She’s also used her savings to pay for her Certified Nursing Assistant and Emergency Medical Technician licenses.

The program has three main benefits for participants:

First, the program gives foster kids experience in handling money. In a classroom, personal finance concepts are theoretical. But when there’s real money in their hands, kids can better understand why it’s important to make good financial decisions.

“I knew what a budget was, but I thought it didn’t pertain to me because I never had a large amount of money,” says Eddye. “But now, I see why it’s important to track my spending. Without that, I would probably be in a lot of debt. My budget is my rock.”

Her success has also made her feel more capable and confident: “I’ve been comfortable keeping a budget for three years, and I’m really proud of that.”

Second, the program gives kids incentive to save. Like Eddye, many kids are initially drawn to the program’s savings match. It’s the catalyst to start saving money and it motivates kids to stick with it, resulting in a higher savings balance.

And money in the bank means one emergency won’t be a huge setback. “[When I bought my car] I didn’t think about costs of maintenance,” says Eddye. “But the reality is that cars break down. I’ve learned the hard way that you need that cushion.”

Third, the program provides education and support. Kids learn how to avoid debt, manage a bank account, and keep a budget, which are critical skills when you’re on your own. Although Eddye initially felt overwhelmed and intimidated, she says, “Now I’m not afraid to ask questions and dig in and do the research,” she says.

So how does the program work?

How Opportunity Passport gives kids a leg up

Opportunity Passport, launched by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, provides personal finance classes for young people who were in foster care after the age of 14.

Total Assets Purchased with Matched Funds in the Opportunity Passport program, as of October 2011

Total Assets Purchased with Matched Funds in the Opportunity Passport program, as of October 2011

Participants also receive a personal bank account and an individual development account (IDA). Money saved through Opportunity Passport is matched dollar-for-dollar in their IDA, up to $1,000 each year. The money can be used for approved assets, such as education expenses, housing costs, and health care. Participants can remain in the program until age 24.

Since Opportunity Passport launched in 2002, it has helped nearly 5,000 young people like Eddye collectively save more than $6 million.

Christine, who’s a consultant with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and an Opportunity Passport trainer, says the key to the program’s success has been partnerships and involvement from participants like Eddye, who’s now serving as president of her state’s youth advisory board. “The solution has to be bigger than child welfare,” says Christine. “Child welfare can’t do it all, even though we expect them to do it all.”

Christine says their next goal is to expand from 15 states to 25 states, so that “half the country is implementing the Opportunity Passport model”.

Considering that even top-rated high schools don’t provide a personal finance education, it’s pretty amazing that this program is successfully providing one for kids in foster care. If you want to learn more about the program or how you can help, check out the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative website.

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