Last night’s presidential debate in Denver was not only notable because of the reset it gave Mitt Romney’s floundering campaign. Or because it was a wake-up for a seemingly somnambulant President Obama. The 90-minute showdown will be notable for what was never discussed: Poverty.
Sure, Romney rattled off a host of troubling statistics on the number of people on food stamps and other forms of government assistance. But nothing was explicitly said by either candidate about what they would do to break the grip of poverty on millions of Americans, especially children.
Advocates have been ringing the alarm about the deafening silence on poverty during much of the campaign. First Focus, a bipartisan group pushing to make children and families a priority, released a “Children's Budget 2012”in June that showed only $.08 of every federal dollar is invested in children.
The Children’s Health Fund released a White Paper in August entitled “Still in Peril: The Continuing Impact of Poverty and Policy on America’s Most Vulnerable Children.” The report notes, “The national child poverty rate has risen consistently, increasing four points in four years, from 18 percent to 22 percent (2007 to 2010). In several states and the District of Columbia, child poverty is 30 percent or greater.”
And on a related note, Save the Children released its “National Report Card on Protecting Children During Disasters.” Does your child’s school or child-care facility’s lack an evacuation/relocation plan, a family-child reunification plan, a K-12 multiple disaster plan or a plan for children with special needs? Rich or poor, the well-being of kids when disaster strikes is paramount. But as the annual survey points out only 17 states meet those four benchmarks for preparedness.
Before last night’s debate, I reached out to each of those organizations to find out what they wanted to hear from Obama and Romney to signal that the men were serious about tackling poverty. After the debate, there was great disappointment.
“We were 75 minutes in before Gov. Romney became the first to mention poverty at all, and neither he nor President Obama mentioned child poverty,” said Ed Walz of First Focus. “There was some mention of the Child Tax Credit, but no acknowledgement at all of the fact that some of its best anti-poverty enhancements are going to vanish without real leadership.”
Mark Shriver, a senior vice president at Save the Children USA, told me that he “would have liked to have heard a commitment to cutting child poverty rates in half over the next eight years.” He added, “I would have liked to have heard a strategy for providing every poor child with a high-quality early childhood education (birth to age 5).”
“Again, poor children remain politically invisible,” said Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician, president of Children’s Health Fund and professor at Columbia University. “In a debate focused on the economy, it would have been entirely appropriate to ask about plans to deal with poverty in general — and poverty among children in particular. For those who are legitimately worried about cutbacks in vital safety net programs for children during this economic downturn, this debate fell short.”
There are two more presidential debates and one vice presidential debate to go. With just 90 minutes to cover a range of issues, there’s no doubt that those confabs will fall short, too. Unfortunately, the disappointment the advocates feel today will not abate.