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Poverty has no nationality. It is not a problem of the desolated areas and suburbs in Asia, Africa, and South America, where the media are used to look for it. This problem concerns also countries considered rich; it hides in the folds of an economic system that only appears to be perfect. Those struck by this problem, especially in countries where the welfare state has not yet reached sufficient levels, end up living by their wits: theft, small scams, drug trafficking, and even selling their body.

The phenomenon of DIY prostitution, to which young Americans in a state of poverty seem to resort more and more often, is the core of a report issued by the Urban Institute, titled “Impossible Choices”. The situation that emerges from it is disturbing: poor young men who have no choice but become criminals and young women who “have sex for money” to make ends meet.

“I have carried out research in 10 low-income communities for a long time – says Susan Popkin, one of the authors of this dossier – and I have written extensively on the experiences lived by women highly exposed to poverty and sexual exploitation, but this is an entirely new phenomenon”.

The qualitative study, carried out in collaboration with the charitable organization of food banks “Feeding America,” analyzed two groups (men and women) in each of the 10 poorest communities in the United States, including major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, rural North Carolina, and eastern Oregon. One hundred and ninety-three young people between 13 and 18 years of age, who were allowed to remain anonymous, partook in the investigation.

Their testimony reveals teenagers – often ignored by the institutions, which focus primarily on children between zero and five years of age – who have nothing to eat for the main meals, who make sacrifices and suffer hunger, with worrying consequences in the long term. It is an insult to their dignity. “It is a very disturbing scenario. Hunger and food insecurity strikes the well-being of some of the most vulnerable young people. We should pay attention to this problem”, adds Popkin.

In each community, and in 13 out of the 20 focus groups, there were cases of sexual exploitation. In seven out of 10 analyzed social groups, teenagers have talked about girls who exchanged sexual favors with strangers in abandoned houses, at flea markets and on the street, often leaving school to work in the sex trade. Moreover, some boys in Los Angeles have admitted that middle school-aged girls, their peers, even affix flyers in public places to advertise their “services”.

Besides, there is the problem of petty crime. In the cities with the highest poverty rates, teenagers steal from local stores for themselves or for their families. Some of them begin to do so from the age of seven or eight years. Boys usually steal mobile phones, shoes, jewelry, and bicycles. Many of them sell drugs to make ends meet.

At the end of the report, the Urban Institute provides several recommendations: improve the federal additional nutrition assistance program; expand access to school meals for teenagers to the summer months and after class; create more and better job opportunities for young people; start community projects and a help program for sexually exploited girls and young women, otherwise punished by the penal system.

Yet, we need to think about it even more thoroughly. We have to reflect on the legacy left by the welfare reform launched 20 years ago in the US, on the spending priorities of the Congress, and on the impact of the slow wage growth. Policies that have left gray areas in the American social fabric, where life and survival have mingled.

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