American teenagers are finding themselves resorting to sex work, drug dealing, and theft in order to feed themselves, according to a new study that finds family poverty has increased around the country.
Researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Urban Institute used the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey data to estimate that 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 struggle to feed themselves, including 2.9 million who have “very low food security.”
The study, Impossible Choices, surveyed 20 focus groups of teens across 10 American communities. In all but two of the communities, participants said kids who faced “acute food insecurity” often turned to criminal behavior like drug dealing and theft, while teens in all 10 areas talked about youth doing sex work to make ends meet. Those behaviors were most common in places with the highest unemployment and poverty.
In a few communities, teens discussed going to jail to get a meal—a tactic the report terms “self-sabotage.”
The stigma of poverty and hunger prevents many youth from reaching out for help, the report states. Some rely on close family, friends, or sympathetic teachers and neighbors, but just as often find themselves faced with the least appealing of options.
The report (pdf) states:
In the study communities with the highest poverty rates, desperation can drive both girls and boys to steal food and other basics from local stores for themselves or to share with their families. A young man in Chicago described it this way, “I ain’t talking about robbing nobody. I’m just talking like going there and get what you need, just hurry up and walk out, which I do … They didn’t even know. If you need to do that, that’s what you got to do, that’s what you got to do.”
[….] Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about “some girls selling their body” or “sex for money.” Teens often related these stories with distaste, but with a clear recognition of why teens—mostly girls—might feel pressed to go to these extremes to get the resources they need to meet their basic needs. Reports of this behavior were much rarer among boys, only surfacing in the girls’ focus groups in Chicago and Greensboro metro.
Having sex for money most often took the form of “transactional dating,” the respondents said, meaning the teen regularly sees and has sex with someone—typically a much older man—in exchange for meals or other basic needs.
That, in turn, opens the kids up to sexual exploitation, with men and boys openly harassing girls in their neighborhoods, from catcalls in the street to stalking. One girl described “guys…creeping in your window at like 11:00[pm].” Others exchanged sexual favors with strangers or stripped in order to make money, in places that included abandoned houses and flea markets.
Sex work opens the kids up to sexual exploitation, with men and boys openly harassing girls in their neighborhoods, from catcalls in the street to stalking.
One Chicago teen spoke about a girl who dropped out of school at age 11 to work in the sex trade to make money for her family.
The report continued, “Boys in Los Angeles confirmed that this behavior may start at an early age in their community, with middle school girls putting up flyers in public places advertising their services.”
Food insecurity has a particularly significant effect on kids, who are at a critical stage in their mental and physical development. Not having enough to eat “undermines their physical and emotional growth, stamina, academic achievement, and job performance,” the report states. That’s exacerbated by the poor quality of what little food is available, such as the groceries at low-cost chain stores, and lack of information about what services are available to families in need, such as pantries.
All of the strategies the kids turn to—from shoplifting to sex work or self-sabotage—threaten their futures, the report states. “They risk failure to finish school, bodily harm, arrest, incarceration, and long-standing criminal records that could inhibit their future employment.”
There are some immediate solutions that could be taken to address these widespread crises, the report states, including increasing the amount of food provided by federal programs, expanding job opportunities for low-income youth, and making trauma-informed care and counseling available to the kids and their parents, who also often turn to risky strategies to support their families.
But in the long run, an investment in ending family poverty is the only way to solve it for good. That means “creating more and better job opportunities,” “improving access to existing jobs,” “reinvesting in cash assistance for needy families,” and “expanding housing assistance.”
“[W]e know exactly what needs to be done to attack the root of the problem,” the report concludes. “It just takes some bold steps.”