February 4, 2021

The Pandemic Is Highlighting the Safety Net’s Inability to Meet the Needs of Young People

The years when young people move from youth to adulthood—roughly ages 14 to 24—are full of immense possibility and potential. This is the time when young people gain the education, skills, life experiences, and supports they need to take on increasing responsibility, form their identities, and learn how to succeed on their own. A stable launching pad formed by support from families and caring adults, consistent access to resources to meet their basic needs, and opportunities to access quality education and employment helps adolescents become healthy, productive contributors to their communities.

But not all young people have access to the family and community resources and supports they need to thrive. Black and Latinx young people face unique barriers because of structural racism in many social systems. Decades of disinvestment and disparities in access to decent income, quality education and jobs, safe communities, and other key resources have prevented Black and Latinx families from accessing the same resources and supports as white families.

These gaps have widened since the pandemic began, and an increasing number of young people are having a hard time meeting their basic needs for food, housing, health care, and income (PDF). These material hardships can, in turn, create major barriers in their efforts to successfully enter adulthood. This reality points to the fundamental importance of understanding the role the public safety net plays in supporting a healthy transition to adulthood—a safety net designed, at least in theory, to protect Americans from serious material hardship.

We recently released a series of briefs that examined strengths and weaknesses in how major federal safety net programs help meet young people’s basic needs for housing, food, health care, and income. We conducted a literature review and interviewed academic and policy experts and youth service providers to understand their perspectives. Four key findings highlight ways the safety net is failing to meet the needs of all young people.

  1. Many young people lack a stable web of family and community supports to help them transition to adulthood. Systemic inequities in access to opportunities leave many young people, particularly Black and Latinx young people, growing up in families and communities with less access to  resources and supports. Structural inequities also create challenges for other groups of young people, such as those who are parents, involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, undocumented immigrants, or those who have separated from their families because of conflict around issues such as gender identity or sexual orientation or abuse. As a result, many young people experience hardships such as poverty, disconnection, employment instability, food insecurity, unmet health needs, and housing instability.
  2. The federal safety net does not reflect the complex realities of young people’s lives, their developmental stage, or their strengths. Safety net policies and practices often overlook the complexities of young peoples’ lives and their developmental stage in ways that create challenges for those who could benefit from these supports. For example, policies do not adequately account for different family structures and relationships. Some safety net policies assume an adolescent becomes an independent adult the moment they turn 18, yet others deny support to young adults older than 18 based on the assumption that they have access to family resources. Young people may not know about safety net programs or be equipped to navigate the logistical and paperwork demands. Policies and practices that inaccurately presume stability of housing and income can complicate a young person’s ability to comply with program rules.


    Safety net supports typically are rigid and lack the flexibility needed for a response that is developmentally appropriate, individualized, relationship oriented, and strengths based.

    —Youth service provider

  3. The federal safety net has many gaps for young people. Because safety net programs tend to designate specific categories of people as eligible—in particular, dependent children or parents with children—other young people can fall through eligibility cracks. Young parents and minors living with their parents have the most access to supports, though even these groups face gaps and challenges. However, the safety net has considerable gaps for people younger than 18 not living with their parents, young adults without children, young adults involved in the criminal legal system, and young people who are immigrants, including those with and without legal status.
  4. The federal safety net lacks a coherent approach to supporting young people. The contradictions and gaps in coverage for different groups of young people reflect a hodgepodge of policies, rules, and systems that sometimes work against each other, rather than as a coherent system of supports.

Young adults need a redesigned safety net

To meet the needs of adolescents, policymakers should consider redesigning safety net policies to build on young people’s resilience, strengths, and creativity. To do this most effectively, they should apply a youth-centered lens. This involves directly and formally engaging young people to help identify challenges and explore solutions. Young people and policymakers working together could consider the following actions:

  • assess the safety net’s efficacy for young people holistically, focusing on interconnections and coordination across programs
  • address eligibility gaps for young people in each safety net program
  • assess benefit and service adequacy for young peoples’ needs
  • simplify eligibility and enrollment processes
  • conduct youth-focused outreach
  • focus on promoting program retention
  • invest in peer networks
  • invest in intermediaries and navigators

Models that provide support are the way to go. If you just get a young person an apartment, that will end poorly. If you just get them a job, that will end poorly. If you have someone who can help them—a permanency navigator model—that is transformative... So, I would be a proponent of any model with support and a permanent connection, so they have someone to call when things get crazy.

—Youth service provider

These findings demonstrate the importance of prioritizing this group in pandemic relief and safety net policies in the months and years to come. The recent executive order addressing family food insecurity is a good start, but it will be important to intentionally focus on young people’s broader needs and increasing equity in the safety net moving forward.

Tom Werner/Getty Images

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.