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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Vulnerable Populations and the Transition to Adulthood
D. Wayne Osgood E. Michael Foster Mark E. Courtney

Policy Options

We believe that the United States needs a developmentally appropriate and socially inclusive system of support for vulnerable youth in transition to adulthood. In this section we touch on the broad theme of social inclusion and then turn to five policy options that can help create such a system. These options involve a mix of specific reforms in the public systems involved as well as broad policies that would pertain to all youth making the transition.

Vulnerable populations deserve special attention during the transition to adulthood not only because they have more trouble meeting life's challenges than their peers but because all young adults are facing especially big hurdles today. The public programs and entitlements that vulnerable youth receive during childhood and adolescence are the nation's explicit acknowledgment of their special needs, and similar supports should be available as they make their way into adulthood. Such supports should not, however, be viewed as perpetuating a helpless dependence, but as enabling them to shape their own future.

The fundamental principle of social inclusion is that a democratic society benefits when all its members participate in the full range of community affairs. Viewing vulnerable populations from the perspective of social inclusion shifts the focus from the personal difficulties or limitations of the populations to society's portrayal of and treatment of them. This broader perspective calls for identifying policies and practices that exclude or alienate certain groups from the larger community. It also entails themes of agency, rights, and power for vulnerable groups to act on their own behalf; of reciprocity among individuals, groups, and the state; and of affection and obligation among all parties. Social policies that follow from the concept of social inclusion enhance opportunities where they are lacking and remove barriers to the full participation of some groups.

From the social inclusion perspective, the reason for meeting the needs of vulnerable groups is not simply to improve their lives, but to help them to become fully contributing members of society and thereby to benefit the lives of all. Vulnerable youth have a good chance of making a successful transition to adulthood if society provides the supports that suit their circumstances. For the general population of youth, today's longer and more uncertain transition to adulthood requires increasing supports from their families and the higher education system. The vulnerable populations lack comparable supports that would enable them to participate more fully as citizens. More effective public policies for this group are thus a means for social inclusion.

The policies a society adopts send messages about the relationships between citizens and the state, about who counts and whose voice should be heard. The eligibility cutoffs that deprive these vulnerable populations of services as they make the transition to adulthood carry the message "You're on your own."53 The services that are available to them usually apply to some category of deficiency, such as mental illness, and are likely to carry stigmas.54 Gaining access to services should not require overcoming a tangle of bureaucratic webs, and the services available should be suited to young adults' developmental needs and competencies.

To reach the goal of a socially inclusive support system for vulnerable youth, we recommend five policy options. The first embraces steps that would help all youth, such as better curriculum and support services at community colleges, universal health care, and a higher minimum wage.55 As youth in vulnerable populations move toward adulthood, they face the same difficulties as other youth, but with fewer resources and skills. Any policy steps that can reduce the difficulties that all youth face will be especially valuable to the vulnerable youth.

A second option would be to improve the existing systems of care for children and adolescents. Services and policies that better meet their needs as children and teens would prepare them more effectively for key life tasks of the transition. First and foremost, the systems of care must minimize the damage they do to those they serve. No doubt any damage they do is unintentional, and it is difficult to distinguish such damage from the very problems that bring youth into these systems in the first place. Even so, the systems sometimes interfere with, rather than aid, the development of those in their care, as when youth experience unstable placements in the child welfare system or become victims of violence in the juvenile justice system. All practitioners involved in social services have struggled with this daunting problem for decades, but it must be addressed.

A third option that would broadly benefit vulnerable youth would be to address the loss of access to programs and services at, or too soon after, the age of majority. Abundant evidence confirms that the difficulties these populations experience during childhood and adolescence have continuing consequences as they transition to adulthood. The heavy dependence of most of today's young adults on their families makes it clear that the need for public investment in the vulnerable populations does not end at age eighteen. Extending the age eligibility of youth-serving systems well into young adulthood would be consistent with normative transitions to adulthood nowadays. And because the life circumstances and developmental needs of early adulthood differ from those of adolescence, policies and practices must be tailored to this age period.

The fourth policy strategy would be to move from a set of independent systems to a single, integrated system. Integration is needed not only across service systems, but also between youth and adult systems. Integration is also needed at two levels—at the administrative level, to coordinate eligibility and financing, and at the service level, to ensure that clients receive a non-redundant and comprehensive set of services in an efficient manner. Integration would also have to bridge the differing cultures of current systems. For instance, many juvenile justice personnel see their mission as protecting the community rather than providing service to youth.56

The final policy option that would improve both child and adult service systems is to shift to a family focus. Such a focus would recognize the diversity of the clients served and increase the involvement of parties most prominent in youths' lives. Like other youth today, these vulnerable populations remain closely tied to and rather dependent on their families, even when those families are dysfunctional. For example, most youth leaving the foster care system continue to have contact with their families of origin.57

Because a system that better recognizes and then meets the needs of its clients may deliver more services, funding will pose a challenge. The critical questions are how much is society willing to invest in vulnerable populations during the transition to adulthood, and what would be the most effective use of such an investment? Fortunately, there is growing interest at the national and state level in developing policy directed toward better supporting vulnerable youth making the transition to adulthood.