Why youth raised in and from care can benefit from financial education

30 September 2016
Author: Maya Ramchandani
I grew up in foster care. 
 
That’s why when I learned my colleagues at Prosper Canada were working with the Children’s Aid Foundation on an online financial literacy course tailored to young people in and from foster care I was interested. I started to playback memories of my childhood around my understanding of money. The most vital lesson concerning money that I learned growing up was that it was hard to come by. From the age of eight, I delivered newspapers three times a week after school, on my own, yep. It was my responsibility to deliver to my route – I understood that the more routes I completed, the more money I made. Rain or shine, snowstorm or scorching heat, my route had to be done if I wanted to be compensated for it. It was the difference between a $15 or $50 payment. I easily understood that if I wanted money, I needed to work for it. 
 
But now I wonder. Did I learn enough? Youth raised in and from care are completely independent at the age of 21 when they “age out”. We stop receiving consistent financial and housing support. In many cases we don’t have immediate or extended family to serve as a safety net so it’s on us to keep ourselves fed, housed, and healthy and financially stable… among other things. I decided to interview Cheyanne Ratnam and Crystal Groves, two women I know who are former youth in care and are articulate and brilliant advocates for the welfare of young people from care. As a result of our conversations, I ultimately came to the conclusion that many young people from care are not granted the financial knowledge, experience and accessibility to appropriate resources to help them succeed financially. 

 Cheyanne Ratnam 
Money Knowledge 
 
Basically the only lesson I learned about money was that I needed to work to get it. When I asked Cheyanne to describe her experience with child welfare agencies she said, “they don’t teach people how to grow their money, they believe that money should be used for necessities.” Good point. I learned that my money needed to be budgeted for expenses… and that’s really it. Any extra money I had left was just perceived as ‘extra’ because I learned how to make money, not how to save or invest. I don’t think this savings issue is uncommon among my community, even Crystal said, “I didn’t start saving until 26 years old, until I started teaching financial literacy and was empowered through financial education”.
 
Did I learn about a TFSA? Sure, I’ve heard the term. But did I understand that it was an account that allowed me to prevent my income from taxation? No way. Don’t even try to ask me about investing small amounts of money in safe stocks like a mutual fund. In fact, I only learned about a mutual fund because I worked for a mutual fund company.

 Crystal Groves
Money Experience
 
Discussing finances with your foster parents is awkward. Remembering her experience, Crystal told me her foster parents, “kept personal finances very private outside giving me my weekly allowance”. Apart from her allowance, Crystal knew she was entitled to $800 per year for clothing. However, her foster parents accompanied her while shopping and purchased the clothes with her money. She wasn’t trusted to make the right choices on her own. Even after Crystal moved out into semi-independent living at the age of 15, it was the same thing. She would submit the receipts of her purchases to be reimbursed. Cheyanne had the same experience –she put it simply, “You never get money in your hand”.  Both women were expected to house and feed themselves, and manage an independent lifestyle when they were still teenagers, but were not trusted to make savvy clothing purchases. Their experiences highlight an interesting point: young people from care are taught to allocate money to fixed costs like rent but are deprived of the training and experience to make other financial decisions that involve making strategic choices. For example, purchasing clothing in which pricing is variable and money can be stretched through strategic choices.
 
I found it shocking when both Cheyanne and Crystal told me that in many cases social workers hold onto young people’s ID’s. This produces two negative consequences. Firstly, it can inhibit the creation of a bank account for which ID is required for opening. Secondly, between the ages of 18-21 young people transition into independent living and receive extended support from the government called Continued Care and Support for Youth (CCSY) in the form of a cheque. If youth are inexperienced in managing money and don’t have a bank account where might they resort? Both Cheyanne and Crystal told me of many young people they know that resort to payday lenders to cash their cheques. The real issue however is that holding onto young people’s ID’s can prevent them from gaining the experience of managing a bank account; a practice that will follow them and influence their habits and choices in adulthood. 
 
Accessibility 
 
It’s clear that financial education is often limited in our childhood and adolescent years. So what about opportunities to catch us up in our last few years in the foster care system? While there has been a dramatic increase in the availability of financial education workshops facilitated through multiple agencies – there is still a knowledge gap. During Cheyanne’s role as the Engagement Lead for the Provincial Health Rights Initiative at Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth’s (OPACY) office, she raised the question, “How big of a book (health rights survival guide) should we develop for young people? We want them to carry it with them when they move around. When young people from care achieve stability it can be often short lived and the book is thrown out”.  Young people leaving care immediately start renting with leases that can be monthly or yearly – so we are constantly moving and getting rid of things. Cheyanne asked a simple and very rational question, “why not provide young people from care with something virtual in the palm of their hands instead of something physical that can get lost or damaged?”
 
Given my experiences combined with Cheyanne’s and Crystal’s – I now ask myself, how will the financial literacy course designed for youth in and from care address the financial literacy needs of this particular population? Check out my next blog to see my reflections of the course in achieving its intended purpose.
 
Crystal Groves is a member of the Young People’s Advisory Council for the Children’s Aid Foundation, she is also a financial literacy facilitator at the Pape Adolescent Resource Centre where she teaches financial education to young people from care. Crystal is studying Criminal Justice at Humber College.
 
Cheyanne Ratnam: Primary Investigator, Child Welfare Permanency and Family Study; Project Manager, Project What’s THE Map: Mobilizing Newcomer Homeless Youth. Cheyanne completed her Bachelor of Social Work and Master’s of Social Work degrees at York University.

Learn more about the Youth Online Financial Literacy Training course here. Get more project updates and the quarterly Prosper Canada newsletter straight to your inbox. Subscribe to our email list. 

THE AUTHOR

Maya Ramchandani is a former Intern for the Marketing and Communications department at Prosper Canada. She recently graduated receiving an Honours Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Toronto. She began her Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs degree at the University of British Columbia in the fall of 2016.

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