Some poor American teenagers are so desperate for food that they’re selling their bodies for money, or are turning to crime — such as shoplifting or selling drugs — to get money for food, the Guardian is reporting.
Social welfare programs in America tend to focus on small children — infants through 5-years-old — so teenagers often fall through the cracks when it comes to public entitlements and other hunger programs, says a new study released by the Urban Institute. Years of slow wage growth have made it harder for working parents to put food on the table, and Clinton-era welfare reform policies have made it difficult for families to fill in the gaps, says the study.
Faced with few or no options, hungry teens are doing what they can to put food in their bellies. In some cases, that means turning to joining gangs, dealing drugs, shoplifting, or even sex work, according to the Urban Institute.
In Chicago, teens told Urban Institute researchers about girls as young as 11 dropping out of school to go into the sex trade to support their families. In Los Angeles, junior high school girls have been known to put up fliers around town, advertising their “services.” Teen girls have admitted to trading their bodies for money in flea markets, abandoned buildings, even on the streets, said one teenage girl in San Diego.
“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.”
Other teen girls — and boys — have adopted a more subtle strategy, where they enter into relationships with older men; trading companionship and sex for dinners, nights out, money. The study blithely calls the process “transactional relationships.” One teen boy in North Carolina said that this form of “dating” is preferable to admitting to what it actually is: prostitution.
“When you’re selling your body, it’s more in disguise. Like if I had sex with you, you have to buy me dinner tonight … that’s how girls deal with the struggle … That’s better than taking money because if they take money, they will be labeled a prostitute.”
If sex work isn’t an option, other hungry teens make a more direct approach: stealing food. One boy in Chicago doesn’t consider it “stealing” if he’s taking food to keep himself alive.
“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.”
Besides the drastic steps some hungry teens are taking to fight hunger, the report found some other distressing facts about hunger and poverty in American families.
- Many teenagers will themselves do without food so that their younger siblings can get enough to eat.
- Most feel a sense of shame about their circumstances and are reluctant to talk with adults who are willing and able to help.
- Some teens have even considered going to jail to be assured three square meals per day.
Urban Institute researcher Susan Popkin, says she’s shocked that, in the wealthiest country in the world, teenagers are going without food.
“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.”
To address the problem of teen hunger, the Urban Institute proposes a variety of solutions, including more federal spending on SNAP (food stamps) benefits, encouraging private food pantries to make it easier to get food, and looking at increasing job opportunities for youth and teenagers.
[Image via Shutterstock/Oksana Mizina]