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Desperately Poor Teens In America’s Impoverished Inner Cities Are Trading Sex For Food

sad-girl-public-domainWhen people get hungry enough, they will do just about anything for some food.  According to brand new research that was just released this week from Feeding America and the Urban Institute, there are millions of teenagers in America that live in “food insecure” households, and researchers were stunned to learn what some of these teens are willing to do to feed themselves.  Some resort to shoplifting, others deal drugs, and there were a surprising number of participants in the study that actually admitted to trading sex for food.  It wouldn’t be a shock to hear that these kinds of things are going on in an economically-depressed nation such as Venezuela, but this is the United States of America.  We are supposed to be the wealthiest nation on the entire planet.  Sadly, even while the stock market has been soaring in recent years, poverty in America has been on the rise.  For those on the low end of the economic scale, things have gone from bad to worse since the end of the last recession, and millions of children are deeply suffering as a result.

Let’s start with some of the hard numbers.  The following comes directly from the Urban Institute website

An estimated 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Another 2.9 million are very food insecure, and roughly 4 million live in marginally food secure households, where the threat of running out of food is real.

Food insecurity takes a tremendous toll on teenagers. Poor nutrition—and the stress of hunger and poverty—can jeopardize their physical and mental health and development and their academic success. But despite the gravity and prevalence of teen food insecurity, we know very little about how these young people experience and cope with hunger.

The researchers already knew that lots of young people were hungry in America.  But what surprised them were the lengths that many of these youngsters said that they would go to in order to get food

Some of the youths said they or someone they know — mostly young men — have turned to shoplifting food, selling drugs or stealing items to sell.

The teens also reported knowing young women who have sold their bodies for food or had sex for money so they could buy food for their families.

Going to jail or failing a class in order to have to attend summer school were also some of the lengths teens went to.

Could you imagine your daughter or your granddaughter exchanging her body for food?

For most of us that is absolutely unthinkable, but the truth is that this is taking place on the streets of America every single day.

And this wasn’t just some blind random phone survey.  The researchers conducted personal interviews with focus groups, and what these kids were willing to admit doing was absolutely astounding.  Here is another excerpt directly out of the report

  • When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities said that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food directly to selling drugs and stealing items to resell for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited job options.
  • Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about some youth selling sex for money to pay for food. These themes arose most strongly in high-poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults.
  • In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school (so they could attend summer classes and get school lunch) as viable strategies for ensuring regular meals.

Many of these young people understand that what they are doing is wrong.  Just consider what some of them told the researchers

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.”

Another comment from Portland: “You’re not even dating … they’ll be like … ‘I don’t really love him, but I’m going to do what I have to do.’”

Many prefer to rationalise what they are doing as dating of sorts. A boy in rural North Carolina said: “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.”

When I read the information in this report, I was stunned.  Yes, I write about our economic decline and the rise in poverty all the time, but I didn’t know that things were this bad.

And the researchers were surprised by what they were hearing as well.  One of them said that the fact that girls are trading their bodies for food “was really shocking to me”, and she believes that things are “just getting worse over time”

“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.”

But aren’t we being told that things are getting better?

Aren’t we being told that our leaders “fixed” the economy?

Of course the truth is that America is mired in a long-term economic decline that stretches back for decades.  With each passing year the middle class gets smaller as a percentage of the population, and poverty continues to grow.  Last year the middle class became a minority of the population for the first time ever, and a lot of formerly middle class Americans are now among those that aren’t sure that they are going to have enough food to eat this month.

Hunger in America is a major crisis and it is growing.  Just because you may live in a comfortable home in a wealthy neighborhood does not mean that this problem is not real.

Tonight there are millions of Americans that do not know where their next meal is going to come from, and they deserve our love and compassion.

Epidemic Of Hunger: New Report Says 49 Million Americans Are Dealing With Food Insecurity

Crying Girl - Photo by D Sharon PruittIf the economy really is “getting better”, then why are nearly 50 million Americans dealing with food insecurity?  In 1854, Henry David Thoreau observed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.  The same could be said of our time.  In America today, most people are quietly scratching and clawing their way from month to month.  Nine of the top ten occupations in the U.S. pay an average wage of less than $35,000 a year, but those that actually are working are better off than the millions upon millions of Americans that can’t find jobs.  The level of employment in this nation has remained fairly level since the end of the last recession, and median household income has gone down for five years in a row.  Meanwhile, our bills just keep going up and the cost of food is starting to rise at a very frightening pace.  Family budgets are being squeezed tighter and tighter, and more families are falling out of the middle class every single day.  In fact, a new report by Feeding America (which operates the largest network of food banks in the country) says that 49 million Americans are “food insecure” at this point.  Approximately 16 million of them are children.  It is a silent epidemic of hunger that those living in the wealthy areas of the country don’t hear much about.  But it is very real.

The mainstream media and our politicians continue to insist that “things are getting better”, and that may be true for Wall Street, but the man who was in charge of the new Feeding America report says that the level of suffering for the tens of millions of Americans that are food insecure has not changed

Nothing is getting better,” said Craig Gundersen, lead researcher of the report, “Map the Meal Gap 2014,” and an expert in food insecurity and food aid programs.

Let’s stop talking about the end of the Great Recession until we can make sure that we get food insecurity rates down to a more reasonable level,” he added. “We’re still in the throes of the Great Recession, from my perspective.”

In fact, a different report seems to indicate that hunger in America is actually getting worse

Children’s HealthWatch, a network of doctors and public health researchers who collect data on children up to 4 years old, says 29% of the households they track were at risk of hunger last year, compared with 25% the year before.

If someone tries to tell you that “the economy is getting better”, that person is probably living in a wealthy neighborhood.  Because those that live in poor neighborhoods would not describe what is going around them as an “improvement”.

In particular, many minority neighborhoods are really dealing with extremely high levels of food insecurity right now.  The following comes from a recent NBC News article

“Minorities are facing serious hunger issues. Ninety-three percent of counties with a majority African-American population fall within the top 10 percent of food-insecure counties, while 60 percent of majority American Indian counties fall in that category”

But if you don’t live in one of those areas and you don’t know anyone that is facing food insecurity, it can be difficult to grasp just how much people are actually suffering out there right now.

For example, consider the story of a young mother named Tianna Gaines Turner

Tianna Gaines Turner can’t remember the last time she went to bed without worrying about how she was going to feed her three children.

She can’t remember the last time she woke up and wasn’t worried about how she and her husband would make enough in their part-time jobs to buy groceries and pay utilities on their apartment in a working-class section of Philadelphia.

And she can’t remember the last time she felt confident she and her husband wouldn’t have to skip meals so their children could eat.

Have you ever been in a position where you had to skip meals just so that other family members could have something to eat?

I haven’t, so it is hard for me to imagine having to do such a thing.  But there are millions of parents that are faced with these kinds of hard choices every day.

Things can be particularly hard if you are a single parent.  Just consider the story of Jamie Grimes

After Jaime Grimes found out in January that her monthly food stamps would be cut again, this time by $40, the single mother of four broke down into sobs — then she took action.

The former high school teacher made a plan to stretch her family’s meager food stores even further. She used oatmeal and ground beans as filler in meatloaf and tacos. She watered down juice and low-fat milk to make it last longer. And she limited herself to one meal a day so her kids — ages 3, 4, 13, and 16 — would have enough to eat.

I have such admiration for working single mothers.  Many of them work more than one job just so that they can provide for their children.  It can be absolutely frustrating to work as hard as you possibly can and still not have enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month.

Those that believe that the economy has gotten “back to normal” just need to look at the number of women that have been forced to turn to government assistance.  As I mentioned the other day, a decade ago the number of American women that had jobs outnumbered the number of American women on food stamps by more than a 2 to 1 margin. But now the number of American women on food stamps actually exceeds the number of American women that have jobs.

The truth is that we are nowhere close to where we used to be.  The last major economic downturn permanently damaged the middle class, and now the next major economic downturn is rapidly approaching.

Right now, there are nearly 50 million Americans that are facing food insecurity.  When the next economic crisis strikes, that number is going to go much higher.

There is going to be a great need for love and compassion in this country during the hard times that are coming.  Instead of just cursing the darkness, I hope that you will choose to be a light to those that desperately need it.

Finca Bayano

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