Poverty and Human Trafficking: Survey Findings Reveal Racism and Precarity

This guest blog from Evelyn Chumbow, Fainess Lipenga, and Nat Paul details the findings of an anonymous survey examining survivor experiences with poverty before, during, and after exiting their trafficking situations.


Poverty is a root cause of human trafficking. Poverty makes individuals vulnerable to traffickers, who use poverty as a weapon and a means to control their victims. Even after trafficking survivors escape, poverty continues to plague their lives. Many struggle to support their families, pay for education, cover medical costs, put food on the table, and afford stable housing.

We know. We are trafficking survivors.

In 2022, we decided to spearhead a survey on the role of poverty in human trafficking. This survivor-led survey began with a series of focus groups with 12 trafficking survivors across the United States. Our team facilitated the focus groups, learning from sex and labor trafficking survivors about the role of poverty in their lives. The focus group discussions culminated in a 53-question survey on poverty – poverty before, during, and after trafficking – which we administered over 10 weeks from October to December 2022.

The research team, composed of survivors and lived-experience experts, administered the anonymous survey online. Staff at the Human Trafficking Legal Center distributed the survey through email listservs and with assistance from non-governmental organizations serving trafficking survivors. In all, we received 88 valid responses from survivors of sex and labor trafficking. Of those, 52 reported that they were survivors of sex trafficking, 10 that they were survivors of labor trafficking, and 26 that they were survivors of both sex and labor trafficking (Figure 1). The vast majority of respondents were white (49); an additional 39 respondents identified as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). Of the 39 BIPOC respondents, the largest proportion of respondents identified as Black or African American (14), closely followed by 13 respondents who identified as mixed race.

Figure 1: Types of trafficking experienced by respondents.

Respondents were asked about their financial status before, during and after they were trafficked, with four response options: living comfortably, able to pay expenses, barely able to pay expenses, or unable to pay expenses. Nearly half of respondents (42) reported that they were unable to pay their expenses before they were trafficked (Figure 2). An even larger segment of the respondents (54) indicated that they were unable to pay their expenses while they were being trafficked. Finally, when asked about their financial status after they were trafficked, an overwhelming number (65) reported that they were barely able to pay their expenses (40) or completely unable to pay their expenses (25).

Figure 2: Financial situation of respondents at different time points.

Respondents were asked to share their current income. The mean income of respondents was $37,840.91, with half of the survivors surveyed (44/88) indicating that they earned $30,000 or less per year.

When we looked at the underlying data on the respondents’ compensation disaggregated by race, we made a troubling discovery. Of the 39 Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) trafficking survivors who responded to this question, 24 (61.54%) reported that they earned $30,000 or less per year, compared to 20 (40.81%) of white trafficking survivors. In contrast, a majority of the white respondents (29 or 59.18%) earned more than $30,000 a year. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Earnings by race of respondent.

Given the limitations of this data, particularly the small sample size, it is clear that the question of race and post-trafficking earnings requires additional research.

Based on responses to the survey, being BIPOC was significantly associated with sharing money with family. People who reported that they had to share their income with their family were 4.68 times more likely to be BIPOC. Therefore, it is likely that BIPOC trafficking survivors face a higher financial burden than white trafficking survivors.

These findings echo the results of a survey on racism that the Survivor Leadership Program at the Human Trafficking Legal Center conducted in 2020. Our work on both of these surveys underscores a conclusion that we reached as survivors long ago: Poverty is systemic. And people of color – both labor trafficking and sex trafficking survivors – are struggling disproportionately.

In our experience, racism plays a significant role in the systemic poverty faced by trafficking survivors of color. Survivors of color are undervalued and underpaid. The anti-trafficking movement exacerbates the discrimination that survivors of color face. A significant portion of the survivor-respondents (73/88) reported that they worked in the anti-trafficking sector. But even today, survivors report that they are paid in gift cards, an insulting, inadequate, and illegal way to provide compensation to survivors. The survey showed 37 percent of survivors who participate in the anti-trafficking movement (27/73) report being compensated with gift cards. (Figure 4)

Figure 4: Type of compensation received by respondents.
(NB: some respondents received multiple types of compensation)

The poverty experienced by trafficking survivors – and particularly by trafficking survivors of color – does not occur in a vacuum. Context matters. Wages have stagnated. The U.S. faces a housing crisis, a crisis that has maximized profits for landlords. Over the course of the pandemic, the richest citizens in the U.S. saw gains of more than $1.7 trillion. Seventy-five percent of PPP loans went to the top 20 percent of the U.S. population. Rent has more than doubled over the past two decades, rising much faster than renters’ incomes.

Trafficking survivors suffer from these same economic headwinds. The root causes of human trafficking remain: poverty, lack of housing, addiction history, racism, and discrimination against LGBTQIA2+ individuals.

The United Nations recently launched a website on Sustainable Development Goal 1, the elimination of poverty in all its forms. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) explains,

“Poverty isn’t just a lack of money. It’s a trap. It’s poor health, sub-standard or no education, and lack of political power. It’s dangerous – it often comes with unsafe housing and perilous working conditions. It’s unfair. The poor aren’t treated equally under justice systems and their healthcare is inferior.”

These words reflect our experience. As survivors, we have found that escaping the cycle of human trafficking trauma is lifelong. We continue to struggle with the emotional and psychological effects of our trauma. Some of us fight for justice, but we find that justice is on paper only. Survivors confront cultural and language barriers. Many are cheated. As survivors, we continue to fight while healing from trauma, often functioning in a language that is not our own, making do with little or no resources, and facing poverty and poor housing conditions.

But there is hope. Poverty is a choice. U.S. policymakers could choose to eliminate poverty. As Nelson Mandela said, “Poverty is not accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”

And we plan to push them to do precisely that.

Evelyn Chumbow is the Operations Director and Survivor Leadership Director of the Human Trafficking Legal Center. Fainess Lipenga is a former staff member of the Human Trafficking Legal Center and a current member of the White House Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. Nat Paul is a consultant to the Human Trafficking Legal Center.