Updated: Aug 8, 2022
By Eric Kellenberger
There are over 400,000 foster youth in the United States at any given time (Child Welfare, 2020; Gypen et al., 2017). These children are vulnerable to negative outcomes in education, employment, and health. While startling, this statistic doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of Americans who have been in the foster care system. Tracking the total number of foster alumni is difficult because it requires tracking the history of the system rather than counting children at a single point in time. Because of this, there is a paucity of research on foster children after they leave the system. In this article I will try to estimate the prevalence of foster alumni in the United States.
We can start with what prevalence data we do have. The United States Census Bureau (2019) says there’s an estimated 328,239,523 people in the U.S. as of July 2019. The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) is a nationally representative survey with 25,966 participants from 2011-2017 (Nugent et al., 2020). The results indicated that 2.6% of adults ages 18-44 had ever been in foster care, which would give us a prevalence of approximately 8.5 million people in the U.S. However, adults between the ages of 18-44 only represent 48% of the adult population, so this would be a conservative estimate (Howden & Meyer, 2011). If the rates of foster alumni were uniform, the prevalence would be 5.4% of the population, or approximately 17.7 million people in the United States. Unfortunately, the rates of foster alumni are not similar over time; the percentage of foster children has been increasing since the 1950s (Johnston, 2017). 17.7 million is a liberal estimate.
We do actually have data on the prevalence of foster alumni ages 18+, but it’s restricted to California. The California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) was conducted in 2003 and 2005 and recruited 70,456 participants (Zlotnick et al., 2012). Out of these adults, 3.4% reported a history of foster care. This number makes sense because it’s within our range of low and high estimates (2.6-5.4%), but how do we know if California is a representative sample of the rest of the United States?
Jacques (2018) ranks the 50 states and Washington D.C. in ascending order on the number of foster care children they serve per 100,000 people. The state with the lowest rate of foster children is Virginia, with 58.1 children per 100,000. The state with the most is Alaska, with a staggering 380.1 children per 100,000. California is right around the median in 24th place with 139.3 children per 100,000; that’s a good start for representativeness. The mean is 154.37, and the standard deviation is 70.64. A quick statistical test tells us that California is about a fifth of a standard deviation away from the mean (Z= -.213). If we could only choose one state to study, California’s not too bad a pick!
Three point four percent. That’s approximately 11.2 million people in the United States. 11.2 million people who are less likely to graduate from high school or college (Gypen et al., 2017). 11.2 million people who earn about half the money of their peers (Steward et al., 2014). 11.2 million people who are more likely to be dependent on drugs and alcohol (White et al., 2007). There may only be 400,000 children in foster care right now, but many, many more are experiencing the undeserved negative effects of growing up in the dependency system.
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Child Welfare Information Gateway (2020). Foster care statistics 2018. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/foster.pdf
Gypen, L., Vanderfaeillie, J., De Maeyer, S., Belenger, L., & Van Holen, F. (2017). Outcomes of children who grew up in foster care: Systematic-review. Children and Youth Services Review, 76, 74–83.
Howden, L.M., & Meyer, J.A. (2011). Age and sex composition: 2010. United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-03.pdf
Jacques, J. (2018, November 13). States with the most children in foster care. Stacker. Retrieved from https://stacker.com/stories/2034/states-most-children-foster-care
Johnston, R. (2017). Historical statistics on adoption in the United States, plus statistics on child population and welfare. Johnston’s Archive. Retrieved from http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/adoptionstats.html
Nugent, C.N., Ugwu, C., Jones, J., Newburg-Rinn, S., & White, T. (2020). Demographic, health care, and fertility-related characteristics of adults aged 18-44 who have ever been in foster care: United States, 2011-2017. National Health Statistics Reports, (138), 1-14. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr138-508.pdf
Stewart, C. J., Kum, H.C., Barth, R. P., & Duncan, D. F. (2014). Former foster youth: Employment outcomes up to age 30. Children and Youth Services Review, 36, 220–229. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2013.11.024
U.S. Census Bureau (2019). Quick facts. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219.
White, C. R., O’Brien, K., White, J., Pecora, P. J., & Phillips, C. M. (2007). Alcohol and drug use among alumni of foster care: Decreasing dependency through improvement of foster care experiences. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 35(4), 419–434. doi:10.1007/s11414-007-9075-1
Zlotnick, C., Tam, T. W., & Soman, L. A. (2012). Life course outcomes on mental and physical health: The impact of foster care on adulthood. American Journal of Public Health, 102(3), 534–540. doi:10.2105/ajph.2011.300285