One of the jarring things about visiting less-well-off countries is the seemingly inexhaustible supply of girls and boys available for anyone with hard currency. These are someone’s kids. But apparently there’s not enough food in the rural village or urban slum to sustain them, so they end up living lives that are absolutely inconceivable for the typical middle-or-upper-class American.
Stuff like that happens here too, of course, but only in unique circumstances and on a very small scale. Right? Well, maybe not any more…
Focus groups in all 10 communities analysed by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based thinktank, described girls “selling their body” or “sex for money” as a strategy to make ends meet. Boys desperate for food were said to go to extremes such as shoplifting and selling drugs.
The findings raise questions over the legacy of Bill Clinton’s landmark welfare-reform legislation 20 years ago as well as the spending priorities of Congress and the impact of slow wage growth. Evidence of teenage girls turning to “transactional dating” with older men is likely to cause particular alarm.
“I’ve been doing research in low-income communities for a long time, and I’ve written extensively about the experiences of women in high poverty communities and the risk of sexual exploitation, but this was new,” said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and lead author of the report, Impossible Choices.
“Even for me, who has been paying attention to this and has heard women tell their stories for a long time, the extent to which we were hearing about food being related to this vulnerability was new and shocking to me, and the level of desperation that it implies was really shocking to me. It’s a situation I think is just getting worse over time.”
The qualitative study, carried out in partnership with the food banks network Feeding America, created two focus groups – one male, one female – in each of 10 poor communities across the US. The locations included big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington and rural North Carolina and eastern Oregon. A total of 193 participants aged 13 to 18 took part and were allowed to remain anonymous.
Their testimony paints a picture of teenagers – often overlooked by policymakers focused on children aged zero to five – missing meals, making sacrifices and going hungry, with worrying long-term consequences.
Popkin said: “We heard the same story everywhere, a really disturbing picture about hunger and food insecurity affecting the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable young people. The fact that we heard it everywhere from kids in the same way tells us there’s a problem out there that we should be paying attention to.”
In every community, and in 13 of the 20 focus groups, there were accounts of sexual exploitation, often related with distaste. A girl in Portland, Oregon told researchers: “It’s really like selling yourself. Like you’ll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat.”
In seven of the 10 communities, teenagers told stories of girls exchanging sexual favours with strangers or stripping for money in abandoned houses, at flea markets and on the street. A girl in San Diego, California, said: “Someone I knew dropped out of high school to make money for the family. She felt the need to step up. She started selling herself.”
Another girl in Chicago told researchers of an 11-year-old girl who dropped out of sixth grade to work in the sex trade, while boys in Los Angeles described how middle school girls put up flyers in public places to advertise their services.
Here – as with all previous entries in this series – the original sin is the past three decades’ debt binge. When you borrow excessively you steal from future growth, and people living in Lord Keynes’ long run end up suffering for your mistakes. Slow growth, crappy, low-paying jobs, and soaring costs for basic necessities become the new normal, and the victims are those least able to afford it. Our kids reap what past generations of profligate voters and their chosen representatives have sown.
But sex-for-food does present an opportunity for government statisticians. If we start including this kind of activity in GDP, then the economy would get a nice growth pop. And if we count these kids as “employed” (not really a stretch if a part-time bartending gig is considered a job) then unemployment might plunge, just in time for the election!
Meanwhile, “transactional dating” ranks right up there in the euphemism pantheon with “police action” for war and “contribution” for taxes. But for parents a rose by any other name is still terrifying.
And it’s not just out-of-sight poor kids. Soaring college tuition is apparently having a similar effect on campus. See Daddies, “Dates,” and the Girlfriend Experience: Welcome to the New Prostitution Economy.
Anyhow, no real surprises here. We’re heading down a well-trodden road that ends, as Venezuela has discovered, with, well…let’s not go there right now.