Alyssa Beltran knew the adults weren’t listening to her. Every time they asked a question that only she could answer, they would look to her boss, Sofia Gomez, to answer instead. It was Beltran’s first official meeting as a 22-year-old youth researcher in the Santa Clara County Social Service Agency’s Office of Research and Evaluation (ORE), but she already knew she had to shake things up.
After the meeting, Beltran and Gomez strategized about how they could convince the other staff members to see her as an equal, with her own voice and expertise to contribute. Beltran’s position was new—never before had the county hired a former program participant, who was still in college no less, to advise on future program design. She had to cut through the awkwardness of being new while also showing a room full of people with decades’ more experience that her insights were valuable.
But for such a tall task, one solution proved simple. At her second meeting, Beltran chose a seat across the room from Gomez. “If they wanted my perspective, they couldn’t look to Sofia for it, they had to look to me,” Beltran said with a smile. “From then on, they started to slowly but surely see me as my own individual.”
For young people, the years from adolescence to adulthood, generally ages 14 to 24, are filled with foundational experiences. Education, work, and community building all shape a young person’s identity and ability to succeed on their own. But for young people without sufficient income or familial support to meet basic needs, safety net supports can help provide an essential, stable launching pad for them to make the most of this time.
All too often, however, safety net programs are not available to young people, in part because they are not designed in ways that reflect their needs. By including young people’s input when designing benefits programs, local governments can ensure the programs actually meet young people’s needs and tackle barriers that may prevent young people from accessing benefits.
When she was 14, Beltran entered Oklahoma’s foster youth system. Soon after, she moved to California to be closer to family, and she later attended San Jose State University, where she majored in justice studies to prepare to work with young people who have experienced foster care like herself.
During Beltran’s freshman year of college, an employment counselor with the county’s Social Services Agency came to campus to present one of their new programs: Intern & Earn. The program offers a paid internship to any young person receiving CalWORKs (the state’s cash assistance program) or CalFresh (its food assistance program) and any young people formerly or currently in foster care to help them gain work experience. Intrigued by the program, Beltran reached out to the employment counselor, and that summer she started her first internship conducting policy research for the county.
Now, more than five years later, Beltran plays a pivotal role in the county’s youth programming, leading research evaluation efforts to integrate young people’s voices in program design. With assistance from people like Beltran, the ORE in Santa Clara County’s Social Services Agency is elevating the valuable perspectives and lived experiences of the young people they serve.
“It’s really amazing to have youth in the room, so we can represent ourselves rather than having well-intentioned adults make decisions for us and not allowing us to provide our perspectives,” Beltran said.
Applying a Youth-Centered Lens to Safety Net Programs
Santa Clara County, California—which spans from tech-saturated Palo Alto down to the produce fields of Gilroy—is home to nearly 2 million people and has more Teslas per capita than anywhere else in the US. In fact, Santa Clara County is the wealthiest county on the entire West Coast, with a median household income of more than $130,000.
But like most places in the US, Santa Clara County is also characterized by stark income inequality. San Jose State University found that in 2022 46 percent of children (PDF) in Silicon Valley lived in households that needed assistance to cover basic needs. According to Santa Clara County, more than 450,000 county residents received some form of public assistance, with more than 125,000 of them younger than 19.
Across the country, young people tend to face more challenges when accessing the social safety net than older adults. For one, young people often don’t know what benefits exist, and when they do, programs are rarely targeted to their specific needs. Applications also often have complex or conflicting eligibility requirements, which can be difficult for young people to navigate.
By applying a youth-centered lens to safety net policies, local governments can pursue strategies—such as simplifying processes, empowering young people, and expanding program eligibility—that provide a stable foundation for young people as they enter adulthood.
For Santa Clara County, Intern & Earn is one such program. The county reaches out to any eligible young people, ensuring that applications are simple and easy to complete. The money that young people make through the program also doesn’t count against other income limits, meaning participation won’t have a negative effect on their families. And the county prioritizes intern feedback so that the program remains responsive to young people’s actual needs.
Originally called TeenWORKS, Intern & Earn began in 2016 after Rafaela Perez, the employment services director for the Social Services Agency, pitched the idea of employing young people who participate in CalWORKS for the summer to help maintain the structure and support they received during the school year. That first summer, with the support of the county administration and Board of Supervisors, the program onboarded nearly 200 young people into six-week internships in county offices for 20 hours a week and $15 an hour.
Since the initial pilot, the Intern & Earn program has grown and evolved. Although Perez and Liza Giron-Espinoza, the program manager, advocated for young people’s specific needs throughout that first evolution, a necessary change came from listening to the interns’ feedback.
“The shift that’s happened is we’ve normalized bringing youth voice to the table,” Giron-Espinoza said.
In 2019, the county launched a youth participatory action research (YPAR) study in response to feedback that emphasized the importance of elevating program participants to leadership roles. A year later, the YPAR effort was made a permanent part of the program, and Beltran was hired full time to lead youth program evaluations.
Beltran and ORE conducted focus groups with young people who had completed internships and analyzed the exit surveys that all interns complete. They found that many young people who may benefit from the program would choose not to return because they could earn more in service jobs. In response, the county extended the internships to eight weeks, increased hours to 30 per week, and raised wages to $17.50 an hour.
“With the youth voice, we were able to develop a plan to expand the program,” Beltran said. “It really felt like our voice was taken into consideration and acted upon. We asked for something, and they were able to deliver it for us.”
Of course, integrating youth voice in program design hasn’t come without its challenges. As Gomez, Beltran’s mentor and the senior research and evaluation specialist in ORE, explained, there will always be difficulties when working within a system that’s not set up to include youth voices.
The shift that’s happened is we’ve normalized bringing youth voice to the table.
Hiring Beltran proved difficult, as the county’s human resources department had a policy where community workers needed to be hired from an existing eligibility list. But Perez and Giron-Espinoza were determined to overcome these challenges, advocating for the importance of incorporating youth voice in programs meant to support young people.
“The success of the program has been because of the broad support at the executive and administrative level,” Giron-Espinoza said. “It’s very empowering to know that if there’s something we need, if it can be done, it will be done.”
Evolving Programs to Support Young People and Their Communities
“Sometimes the small dogs are the hardest,” Estrella Talavera says as she uses her knee to keep two corgi mixes from escaping the kennel. The dogs had just come into the Santa Clara County Animal Services center the night before and weren’t used to the daily dinner process. Talavera, on the other hand, was an old pro: she was working with the animal shelter for her fourth consecutive internship.
Although Talavera has never met Beltran, she has seen the effect Beltran has had on Intern & Earn firsthand. When she was 15, Talavera received a postcard in the mail inviting her to apply for the program. Her family received CalWORKs benefits, so both she and her twin brother were eligible. That first summer, Talavera and her brother worked at Gilroy Gardens, a children’s amusement park, for six weeks.
Now 19, Talavera just completed her ninth internship while studying to become a nurse at Gavilan College in Gilroy. She’s worked at the animal shelter since January 2022, as the program now places interns across four cohorts year-round. She appreciates that the Intern & Earn program has given her necessary work experience and allows her to make some money—more money than when she started—while taking classes. She likes working at the animal shelter because it’s close to home and is open on the weekends, but she wishes more opportunities were available, such as nursing-related internships.
Intern & Earn is continually working to expand those opportunities. Today, around 150 nonprofits, private companies, and county offices offer internship placements through Intern & Earn, ranging from the animal shelter to food pantries to Gilroy Gardens. After each cohort ends, program staff ask the interns what other opportunities they’d like to see. Then the staff members go into the community to ask nonprofits and businesses to consider accepting interns. Generally, local nonprofits and businesses are receptive to taking on interns.
Jennifer Espino, Talavera’s supervisor at the animal shelter, said that in addition to having an extra set of hands around, it’s rewarding to mentor the next generation. “I feel like you get the opportunity to pour into them because they’re so young and they’re eager to work, they’re eager to learn,” Espino said. “This person’s going to grow up, go to the real world, and we helped play this part in teaching them the tools that they’re going to use.”
For the Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment—which provides housing, education, and other services to families who need help meeting their basic needs—the Intern & Earn program not only lets interns gain work experience, but it also helps the nonprofit stay afloat.
“Having the interns helps fulfill needs that we couldn’t fill otherwise because of budget,” said Mayra Cerda-Klinkhammer, the nonprofit’s director of programs.
This fall, two interns, Cynthia Grajales and Michelle Ortega, helped provide after-school care for children that Amigos de Guadalupe serves. Ortega joined the program after she entered the foster youth system at 17 and her employment counselor suggested the opportunity. Four years and a handful of internships later, she’s studying to become a children’s therapist after working with kids through Intern & Earn.
Grajales, like Talavera, joined the program after she received a postcard when she was 15. At her first internship, she mostly did data entry, which she found boring. But Cerda-Klinkhammer took her under her wing as a mentor, so when she took a job at Amigos de Guadalupe, Grajales followed her for subsequent internships. Although she’s studying criminology to become a forensic analyst, Grajales has appreciated working with kids because she says it has taught her patience.
Both Oretga and Grajales appreciated that the program has given them a chance to gain more work experience but said that if they could change anything, they would make it longer. Because the program lasts only two months and there are four cohorts a year, Ortega pointed out that there’s a month-long gap between internships. Grajales felt that maybe a six-month internship would allow them to keep working and become more comfortable in the role.
Talavera, Grajales, and Ortega will be given a chance to offer their thoughts at the end of their internships. If it makes sense and is possible for the county to implement their ideas, Beltran said that ORE will do their best to deliver.
“We’re doing surveys, we’re doing focus groups, and we’re asking about how satisfied were you? What did you like? What would you like more of?” Giron-Espinoza added. “The whole idea of an internship is to learn what you like and what you don’t like, so it’s a great thing to hear from our youth.”
Understanding That One Voice Cannot Speak for Everyone
As the Intern & Earn program continues to evolve, Perez, Giron-Espinoza, and everyone involved at the leadership level want to continue elevating youth voices to improve the program. ORE is hiring a second youth researcher to work with Beltran and institutionalize the youth participatory methods they’ve piloted. And the county is already using these methods to create new programs. Beltran played an instrumental role in informing the design of Intern & Earn 2.0, a newly launched effort that places young people in foster care in six-month apprenticeships with the expectation of being hired full time.
Gomez hopes that by bringing more youth researchers into the fold, they can improve existing youth programs and continue to innovate new ones. But this expansion isn’t without its challenges.
“The larger research question for me is: can we use participatory research methods within the government system in terms of the bureaucracy?” Gomez said. “Because it’s flipping that hierarchy on its head and allowing youth to drive their needs in a way that hasn’t been done.”
As Santa Clara County continues to blaze this trail, other local governments across the country can learn from their experiences. And some places are already pioneering effective strategies to involve youth voice. The Oregon Department of Human Services’ Youth Experience Homelessness Program, for instance, has created multiple opportunities for young people to provide feedback and recommendations for program design to better address youth homelessness.
Providing young people with leadership opportunities has only strengthened the Intern & Earn program, Giron-Espinoza said, and it has produced promising avenues for improving other services the agency offers. But everyone recognizes that Beltran can’t be tasked with shouldering the burden alone.
“I am one youth of many,” Beltran said. “We need a whole systems change: changing the way that you work with youth, the way that you communicate with communities, the way that you allow them to contribute their voices.”
This feature was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
RESEARCH Amelia Coffey and Jincy Wilson
DEVELOPMENT Jerry Ta
EDITING Liza Hagerman
PHOTOGRAPHY Rhiannon Newman
WRITING Wesley Jenkins