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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Soapbox: Independence and Irony

Yesterday I had the chance to spend the morning talking with several social workers at a local family agency, who work particularly with youth and adults whose ability to live independently is or may be compromised.  I mentioned that I hadn't decided what to chat about today.  After seeing one of my long-held theories hit home for some I decided I had found my topic.  Not a more typical rant, but a sad, ironic observation and conclusion.

Is is a painful irony that in our American society those young people who are least prepared, least likely, and least able to be successful at living independently are forced to live independently two, four, or even six years sooner than those young people who are most prepared and most able.

This is true whether you are considering their intellectual ability, their emotional ability, their skills level, their instincts or anything else.  This is true whether you consider kids exiting foster care, kinship care,or adoptive and biological families.  Are there occasional exceptions, yes. But, they are occasional if not rare.

The most able of our young people do not have to live independently when they become legal adults at age 18. They move out of home and into a different kind of "supported transitional community"--- a two year community college or trade school, a four year college, some even extend their transition time to include graduate school. They don't face the challenges of independent living until they are in their twenties, sometimes their late twenties.

Image the difference in brain development, skill acquisition, street smarts, social skills, work skills, organizational ability, responsibility, trust, judgement etc etc etc between a 12 year old and an 18 year old.  Now consider the difference between an 18 year old and a 22-24 year old! Consider the illustration above [I couldn't find an image for 12-24 but there are lots of heavy scientific studies and even more plain language reports]:

And then there are finances.  These most able young people generally enter the job marketplace at income levels far about those of the 18 year olds entering the marketplace with a high school diploma at best.  This allows them the luxury of budget and spending mistakes with more opportunity to fix their mistakes than young people living check to check, often with no support system that comes close to the systems available to their older, more able counterparts.

If we are not willing and able to prepare these less able young people for successful independent living, or to support them more effectively through their transition to independence, we will end up supporting a large percentage of them through jails, shelters, welfare programs, and other less effective, more expensive bandaid, patchwork approaches. 

If we want the maximum number of people to become contributing members of our society the first step is enabling, training, educating, supporting all young people to be successful at living to the greatest possible degree of independence to which they are able. We need to make independent living skills as important to school curriculums as math, or science, or anything else

Image credits:,,

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