Teenagers across the country are falling into drug dealing, theft, and prostitution in order to eat. This, according to a recent study, which found that poverty has been increasing throughout the U.S.

10DResearchers at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. have taken a close look at the current Census data, and this group estimates that more than 6.8 million Americans between the ages of 10 and 17 struggle to eat, including almost three million who currently have “very low food security.”

During this study, 20 different focus groups of teens were studied in 10 separate communities across the country. In eight out of the 10 communities, the study participants claimed that pre-teens and teens often participated in theft and drug dealing to make ends meet. In all 10 communities, teens claimed that they participated in prostitution. Additionally, in a couple of communities, teens intentionally committed petty crimes and went to jail in order to get a meal.

The stigma that surrounds hunger and poverty often stops many teens from reaching out for help. It’s true that some rely on friends, family, neighbors, or teachers, but too many face criminal acts to survive.

In the communities with the highest rates of poverty, these teens are often desperate and not only steal food for themselves, but also for their family. Teens in all of the studied communities, and in 13 out of the 20 focus groups, mentioned that several teens are “selling their body” or having “sex for money.” Mostly girls, the teens who are doing this are feeling pressed to the extreme to get the basic resources for their basic needs.

Many instances of having sex for money came in the form of girls regularly seeing a man, generally one who was much older, in exchange for food and other items. This, in turn, has opened these teens up to forms of sexual exploitation, with both men and boys harassing girls in the neighborhood. This includes everything from catcalls to stalking. Other girls gave sexual favors for cash or even stripped to make money to get food, and these acts took place in locations including flea markets and abandoned homes.

Looking at a case in Chicago, an 11-year-old girl dropped out of school to make money for her family in the sex industry. A group of boys in LA confirmed that the same thing happens there, and even claim that girls in middle school are sharing flyers in public to advertise their offerings.

Having food insecurity has had a significant effect on these teens, as they are at an extremely important stage in their physical and mental development. For those who do not have enough to eat, it undermines their emotional and physical growth, academic achievement, job performance, and stamina. This gets even worse when you look at the quality of the food that is available to them.

All of these actions including sex work, shoplifting, and drug dealing, severely affect the future of these teens. They risk dropping out of school, arrest, bodily harm, incarceration, and criminal records that might inhibit their future opportunities for employment.

There are a few solutions that could address this crisis, including offering more food from federal programs and more job opportunities for these teens. Counseling and informing the teens could also have a positive impact.

In the long run, making an investment in ending poverty is the only solution. This means that expanding housing assistance, creating more jobs, improving the access to existing jobs, and offering more cash assistance is necessary. To do this, however, will require some daring steps to make a big difference.

Robert Siciliano personal security and identity theft expert and speaker is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Your Identity Was Stolen. See him knock’em dead in this identity theft prevention video.

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