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When the hunger becomes unbearable, teens in the US resort to desperate measures. A new study by a DC think tank finds that some teens in poor communities sell their bodies just so they and their families can eat.
The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And yet it cannot ensure that the most basic human needs are covered for all of its people. Teenagers in poor communities all across the country are so desperate for food that they steal, deal drugs and even offer sexual services in exchange for a warm meal. That's what a report by Washington DC-based think tank Urban Institute (UI) reveals.
"It's really like selling yourself," a teenage girl in Portland in the western state of Oregon told UI researchers. "You'll do whatever you need to do to get money or eat."
Over the course of the last three years, UI researchers spoke with 193 teens aged 13 through 18. They listened to a group of boys and a group of girls each in 10 poor communities across the US, from Chicago to Los Angeles and from rural North Carolina to eastern Oregon.
Their results paint a picture of "impossible choices imposed upon teenagers who are forced to transition into adulthood much too quickly," the Institute states on its website.
That's how the report got its name: "Impossible Choices - Teens and Food Insecurity in America."
Too hungry to fall asleep
The report cites recent population survey data saying that approximately 6.8 million US youths between the ages of 10 and 17 struggle to have enough to eat on a regular basis, including 2.9 million boys and girls who have very low food security.
Teens in poor communities in the US often have a hard time finding regular jobs to make money and buy food
This doesn't mean going hungry for a few hours because you forgot to bring lunch or not being able to afford your favorite restaurant. Some of the families affected run out of money to spend on food toward the end of the month. Teens will save their school lunch to eat at dinner time, according to the report, so they aren't too hungry to fall asleep at night. They're hanging around friends' houses hoping to get a meal with them. And older teens go hungry to make sure their younger siblings can eat.
"We heard the same story everywhere, a really disturbing picture about hunger and food insecurity affecting the well-being of some of the most vulnerable young people," the study's lead author Susan Pokin told British daily "The Guardian."
While the US is a wealthy country in general, that wealth is not evenly distributed. "Working-class wages have stalled, and cash assistance from government programs has wilted," the report explains. Additionally, many teens aren't aware of institutions like food banks that could help feed their families, feel like they have no one to turn to - or are too embarrassed to ask for help.
"Teens feel more bad about [hunger] because they have more insecurities about themselves," a teenage boy in San Diego told UI researchers. "Poor kids are the outcasts. People [are] nasty to you."
Food banks in the US provide groceries and meals for people in need, but some don't hand out food to minors
Faced with acute food insecurity, teens turn to desperate measures. Almost all of them would prefer to work regular jobs to support their families, but for inexperienced teens, it's hard to find work, especially in poor communities. That's why they start shoplifting, selling drugs - or exchanging sex for money. Teens in all 10 communities that the Urban Institute visited said they knew about girls their own age who sold their bodies to be able to buy food.
The youth shared stories about girls stripping or offering sexual favors to strangers for money. A girl in San Diego said her friend dropped out of high school to support her family and started "selling herself." And boys in Los Angeles said they had seen girls in middle school (grades five or six through eight) put up flyers in public places advertising their "services."
Even more common, according to the "Impossible Choices" report, is so-called transactional dating, which is nothing like actual dating at all. No butterflies in your stomach, no introducing a boyfriend to mom and dad, no sweet hand-holding. Instead, girls will regularly go out with an often much older man for the dinner he might buy them before sex.
"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," a boy from rural North Carolina explained.
These "relationships" become a "key survival strategy" for some girls, according to the report. One girl in Washington DC told the story of her friend, 17, who was going out with a 40-year-old man who had money. Teens in other focus groups talked about transactional dating between girls and high school boys who had made money by selling drugs.
A phrase that came up often in the discussions between teens and UI researchers: these girls "do what they have to do" so they or their families don't go hungry.