During a Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday, Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett Smith testified that increased federal spending is the solution to the global problem of human trafficking. But experts from regional organizations who deal firsthand with the problem say more government dollars from Washington is the wrong way to solve it.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the committee, asked the actress “whether there’s much more that we could be doing” to end human trafficking and slavery, domestically and abroad.
Pinkett Smith, who came with husband Will and daughter Willow in tow, said more government spending is the answer. “We need more adequate funding for programs that … help transition our young people from those traumas,” she said.
The federal government budgeted $109 million in 2010 for international and domestic “anti-trafficking in persons” programs. The legislation authorizing this spending has since expired. A new Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, introduced last year, has yet to see a full Senate vote.
All three witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing called for its passage, but advocates who work with human trafficking victims told The Daily Caller that they see the problem in terms of local law enforcement, not top-down control from Washington.
“As it was brought to our attention, it’s been an ongoing issue because these girls are so young that LAPD doesn’t want to do the paperwork on them, so they just let them go,” said Felicia Flores, who supervises community-based services at the Hollygrove foster agency.
Hollygrove is in Los Angeles, the city that provided the backdrop for much of Pinkett Smith’s testimony.
And no matter how much money Congress spends, Flores added, depraved human nature will find a way to do the wrong thing, even in cases of child prostitution.
“It’s almost impossible to solve the problem,” she said, “because it’s so big and nobody’s going to talk. From my understanding, people who have the money pay for the service.”
International Justice Mission vice president of government relations Holly Burkhalter also testified Tuesday, asking senators to incentivize foreign service officers to work on the issue internationally. She said the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the main State Department body involved in the issue, should be elevated to the more important level of State Department Bureau.
The elevated status, she said, would entice foreign service officers who want an ambitious career path to follow.
“When they come into an office, it doesn’t have the same prestige as a bureau,” she said. “It doesn’t have the same promotion track.”
Burkhalter joined Pinkett Smith in requesting more spending on anti-human trafficking efforts, but would not give an exact target figure. Asked if the government can afford to increase spending when it is already trillions in debt, she said, “We sure can … and you know what, right now what we’re spending on fighting trafficking is peanuts.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s press secretary told TheDC that the senator supports “strong funding for victims assistance programs,” but added that it is “difficult to figure out the exact amount of money which [already] supports anti-trafficking projects and programs.”
Kerry supports a “robust” international affairs budget, but also would not say outright whether more spending is the answer. At the hearing, he reassured witnesses Burkhalter, Pinkett Smith and Humanity United vice president David Abramowitz that he agrees with their approaches.
*Jayne Bigelsen, the Director of Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives at the Covenant House in New York City, told TheDC that she believes it’s counter-intuitive to provide funding to combat trafficking while cutting funding for homeless and runaway youths.
“The best way to prevent trafficking is to help homeless and disconnected youth to begin with,” Bigelson said.
While the statistics on human trafficking are “problematic,” she says, “I can assure you that whenever the youth can’t find services or shelter, there’s a pimp waiting somewhere nearby for them.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report said Jayne Bigelson believes human trafficking is a problem only solved at the local level. That was incorrect. Bigelson supports “adequate” funding at all levels of government for preventing human trafficking and treating survivors. We regret the error.