“Many times the children that are taken in, in these types of criminal activities, are children that are disaffected, they are from broken homes, they may be on the street themselves — they are really looking for a meal, they are looking for shelter, they are looking for someone to take care of them, and that’s really the first approach that’s made,” said Perkins.
Law enforcement, researchers, and social workers agree that poverty makes teenagers — particularly girls — far more vulnerable to sex traffickers. Many victims also come from homes with drug addiction and abuse. Pimps lure these children with promises of security and sometimes love, and then hold them against their will for years. Perkins warned that the 105 victims will be “taxing” on social services and victim assistance programs going forward, and stressed that they will “need a great deal of help.” Without a strong social safety net, he said, many of these children will likely fall back into prostitution.
While the FBI crackdown has prompted calls for tougher penalties for traffickers and advertisers, the real antidote to child prostitution may need to tackle child poverty. Bolstering social welfare programs could do more to keep children out of the hands of sex traffickers than any law enforcement effort.
The current economic landscape is bleak: the U.S. has one of the worst records in the world on child poverty, which is inexorably on the rise. Roughly 80 percent of Americans are expected to struggle with financial instability at some point in their lives, and most will rely on government safety net programs like food stamps.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the most effective programs to combat this systemic problem, keeping millions of families out of poverty each year. Yet Republican lawmakers are pushing for ever-harsher cuts and more stringent eligibility requirements to food stamps. Meanwhile, 22 million households brace for reduced benefits later this year.
One of the more popular “reforms” to food stamps has made poor families especially easy prey for sex traffickers. In 1996, Congress permanently banned anyone convicted of a drug felony from receiving aid, effectively pushing their families into permanent poverty. One study found that the ban, which disproportionately affects poor women, actually pushed young mothers into prostitution in order to feed their families. Their children, as a result, were likely exposed to the sex trade at a very young age — not to mention a heightened HIV risk.
Many of the children rescued by the FBI had run away from home and were living on the streets when they were lured into sex trafficking. Rather than help these people find shelter or rehab, many cities are actually criminalizing homelessness. Given the ways the system has been stacked against them, many at-risk children have little choice but to turn to the criminal world for help.