Economic Model on Human Trafficking Puts Focus on Demand

Southern Methodist University’s Elizabeth Wheaton Ph.D., senior lecturer in economics, believes that finding solutions to social issues is possible by examining the economics behind the problem. Wheaton began researching human trafficking in 2005 and since then, along with two other researchers, Edward J. Schauer and Thomas V. Galli, developed an economic model of human trafficking published in 2010, which she hopes will inspire others to look at social issues from an economic standpoint.

According to Wheaton, her interest in human trafficking came from her interest in child labor. After earning her masters in international business, Wheaton went back to school and got her PhD in economics in order to focus on child labor, which was the subject of her dissertation.

Wheaton’s economic model breaks down the issue of human trafficking into three parts: the supply of vulnerable populations that are potential victims, the traffickers and the consumers. The model then examines the costs, benefits and incentives of each part. “It’s really looking at the different pieces of the human trafficking market and figuring out what’s going on at each part of the market,” Wheaton said. “Then you can look at those pieces of it and say, where do we want to focus law enforcement? Where do we want to focus laws? Where do non-profit organizations want to be involved? Where are the most efficient places for non-profits to be involved in the huge chain? Because there’s a lot going on with human trafficking — you can’t hit everything at once you kind of have to hit pieces of it.”

For Wheaton, the complexity of the human trafficking issue is what makes finding one solution challenging. However, she believes the construction of an economic model can help. In Wheaton’s opinion, eliminating the demand is most efficient. Wheaton said, “If you’re looking at the solutions for it, it’s not going to be with the traffickers because if you take one out there’s another one that’s just going to replace that one. That’s what most of our laws are right now — to go after the human traffickers. It’s either going to have to be at the supply side or the demand side. As long as there is a demand for traffic victims there’s going to be a supply and so a lot of the models, mine included, say we have to go with the demand for human trafficking to wipe it out.”

Although it might initially seem easier to eliminate the supply rather demand, Wheaton said eliminating the supply means eliminating human vulnerability, which is an improbable task. “If you’re talking about supply, you’re talking about vulnerability,” Wheaton said. “You’re talking about making sure that people have enough money to survive, that they have protection, that they have psychological and sociological resources, and you’re talking about a lot of people. Going after demand is a little easier because there is so much vulnerability in the world. I’m all for helping vulnerable populations but to solve the human trafficking problem, it’s probably more efficient to go with demand.”

Learn more at Emily Sims’ The Daily Campus article: Wheaton publishes economic model on human trafficking.

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