Hint: It’s not just about the money
Poverty is one of the single greatest predictors of vulnerability to trafficking—and the reason why is easy to understand. When people are struggling to pay for food or rent, school, or for health care, they become desperate for solutions. They become easy targets for traffickers. Combined with other factors like statelessness, lack of education, or being underage, that prevent them from attaining legal work, they are ripe for exploitation.
The Effects of Poverty on Child Development
Povery has been shown to have an incredible impact on children, so much so, it actually shapes how their brains grow and develop in the earliest years of their life, affecting their behavioral, emotional, and cognitive processes (including executive functions like: attention control, cognitive flexibility, memory, problem-solving, planning and reason)–all of which are critical to learning and functioning well. The difference can be seen as early as age two, and the impact is so strong, countless of studies have shown that children living in poverty perform less well in school and are more likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended, and dropout from school.
Why Poverty Matters
There are several possible reasons poverty in childhood has such an indelible impact. The early years of child development are widely understood to be the most formative years. Because so much brain development happens in early childhood, and then in the rest of childhood, those years are particularly critical.
Poverty is particularly insidious because of how it shapes the environment in which the child grows and learns. Poverty itself can be extremely stressful, which in turn, leads to child abuse and neglect. Parents in poverty sometimes don’t have the resources necessary (financial, education/awareness, etc.), or are otherwise unable to provide appropriate care. Some homes in impoverished areas have greater exposure to environmental toxins or poverty leads to insufficient nutrition. Or sometimes, there are other factors, for example substance abuse, that contribute to both poverty and abuse or neglect.
In the community in which we work, we have seen families struggle with intergenerational patterns of abuse—parents pass down what they experienced when they were children. Some parents have been trafficked themselves and have traumas of their own they’ve been unable to heal. Or sometimes, it just comes down to never having been exposed to a different way of raising children. Parents with limited education may have a reduced ability to provide a stimulating environment to encourage proper brain development.
“They tend to limit their children’s linguistic environment by using language that is dominated by commands and simple structure, rather than by explanations and elaboration with an increase in the percentage of negative comments made. In addition, low‐income families tend to use harsh parenting styles that are based on parental control, rather than reciprocal, interactive styles that promote emotional development and social competence. Being read to in the first few years of life contributes to the development of phonemic awareness and comprehension skills. However, children from poor families are less likely to be read to than children from better off families.” – Engel, P. and Black, M., 2008
Persistence into Adulthood
The effects of poverty persist into adulthood. In education, children who start off with lagging behind their peers often are unable to close that gap as they get older. “Poverty limits the chances of educational attainment, and at the same time, educational attainment is one of the prime mechanisms for escaping poverty.” When children living in poverty perform less well in school and are more likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended, and dropout from school, this in turn affects their ability to get and keep a job, thus making it difficult for them to ever escape poverty.
Morever, “childhood poverty has been linked to overall poor health and higher rates of mortality in adulthood. Childhood poverty and chronic stress can even lead to problems regulating emotions as an adult.”
How This Relates to Trafficking Vulnerability
If it’s clear that poverty leads to trafficking vulnerability because people are desperate to pull themselves out of their economic plight, this evidence shows that poverty also leaves people vulnerable for a variety of less immediately visible reasons. Poverty reduces the ability to regulate the decision-making—for example, in assessing risk—that is critical to navigating a way out of poverty and away from dangerous situations when they have limited options. To the extent that a child has been abused, they may never develop the sense of self-worth to believe they deserve not to be abused—something that is likely to be a key factor in the ability to understand trafficking as exploitation and a violation. Indeed, children who have been trafficked are highly likely to have a history of sexual abuse.
If this argument is true, it suggests that reducing vulnerability to trafficking is not just about providing an economic buffer. While money is helpful in solving the immediate problem, counseling, mentorship, and communal support may be critical to healing underlying conditions contributing to vulnerability—in the brain and in a child’s heart.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Research Writer and Executive Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She currently writes from Berlin.