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#TalkPoverty: After the Debate, More Questions from Families for Obama and Romney | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

#TalkPoverty: After the Debate, More Questions from Families for Obama and Romney

The streak is alive!

It doesn’t receive the kind of attention that the Chicago Cubs do for years without a World Series title; or even New Orleans Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, for the number of games straight in which he’s thrown a touchdown pass.

But it’s a streak worth pay attention to: at least five presidential or vice presidential debates straight without a single question about poverty, dating back to 2008!

Batter up, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, with CNN’s Candy Crowley on deck. There are about 100 million people who not only can’t afford to take their families out to the ballgame, they can barely afford enough peanuts or Cracker Jacks to go around.

Without fanfare, we are shattering US poverty records: 46 million people—including 16 million children, or 22 percent of all kids—now live in poverty, on less than $18,000 a year for a family of three. Over one in three Americans, 106 million people—live on less than $36,000 a year, facing many of the same tough choices as those in “official” poverty—between basics like food, housing and healthcare. Forget about any significant savings to weather a storm or send a kid to college.

And yet, in a ninety-minute debate focusing on domestic policy—which moderator Jim Lehrer said would feature three segments on the economy, and one each on healthcare, the role of government and governing—poverty wasn’t deemed worthy of a single question.

Not that the blame lies entirely on Lehrer.

Governor Romney referenced “one out of six people in poverty” without offering a single serious policy proposal to help people toward living wage jobs. This is par for the course, the poverty numbers being a talking point he uses to attack President Obama. In his Republican convention speech: “Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty.… These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans.” And in an e-mail last week with the subject heading, “Victory in Sight,” Romney writes that “nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty.” The most specific Romney has been to date regarding assistance to low-income people was in his series of campaign ads saying that Obama is gutting the work requirement from welfare—something that people on all sides have denounced as an outright lie.

For his part, President Obama failed (and showed little desire) to seize numerous openings to discuss the struggles of those at the bottom of our economy.

When Romney used the poverty rate to attack him, Obama could have mentioned that the Recovery Act—which Romney and most in the GOP opposed—kept nearly 7 million people out of poverty in 2010. When Romney proposed block-granting Medicaid to the states, Obama could have mentioned that the sixteen-year experiment with block-granting cash welfare (TANF) to states has resulted in only 27 of every 100 families with children in poverty receiving aid, as opposed to 68 prior to the block grant. Or that the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid to everybody under 138 percent of the federal poverty line—17 million more low-income adults and children—was not only a life-saving and historic victory for people in poverty but also saves state and local governments resources currently spent on uncompensated care and services for the uninsured. When Social Security was brought up, it was an opportunity to educate America that this is the single-most important antipoverty program in the United States, keeping more than 21 million people out of poverty last year alone. Obama could have noted that unemployment insurance lifted 2.3 million people out of poverty last year—3.2 million the year before, thanks to a temporary benefit increase in the Recovery Act—and that Republican opposition to extending unemployment benefits this year has further eroded its antipoverty effect.

The good news is that there are a growing number of people and advocacy groups who are angry with moderators and candidates who fail to push a substantive conversation about public policy and how it impacts those living in poverty or near-poverty.

To that end, here is TheNation.com’s final installment in its five-part #TalkPoverty series.

* * *

The Marguerite Casey Foundation believes that every family should have an equal voice in the policies affecting their lives and communities. Since 2001, the foundation has provided long-term support to grassroots organizations that fight poverty by helping low-income families organize and advocate on their own behalf.

“Low-income families know better than anyone what they need in order to thrive and succeed,” says Luz Vega-Marquis, president and CEO of the foundation. “They have the answers—but they are never asked.”

So four years ago the Marguerite Casey Foundation did ask. It turned to low-income families to shape a new Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign. The families were tasked with drafting and adopting a national platform that would articulate the challenges they face in their lives and the policy changes that would strengthen their economic security and opportunity.

“Thirty thousand people took part,” says Vega-Marquis. “From prisoners in Washington state, to immigrant farm workers in Florida, to families living in unincorporated colonias in the Rio Grande Valley, to teenagers living in violence-plagued neighborhoods in Chicago.”

The effort resulted in a national platform and also regional networks that today continue to organize to advance family-friendly policies supporting economic and social wellbeing.

In May, 15,000 families took part in the Equal Voice National Online Convention to update the national platform. They gathered in Seattle; Birmingham; and McAllen, Texas; and in other cities and rural towns where the convention was streamed live into schools, coffee shops, libraries, offices and people’s homes.

Participants discussed the issues and voted on a platform in-person and online. Education was rated the top priority, and other issues addressed included: immigration reform, healthcare, jobs, housing, child care, food security, criminal justice reform, elder care, LGBT rights, transportation and youth engagement.

Today, using the national platform as a guide, the regional networks are organizing and have won some hard-fought victories:

• In Texas, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network helped turn back eighty pieces of anti-immigrant legislation and worked to overturn state voter-ID laws.

• Across the country, with pressure from Equal Voice families and allies, school boards are ending harsh zero-tolerance policies that often push children out of the education system and into the juvenile justice system.

• Equal Voice families are taking on corporate giants for egregious environmental practices—like in Richmond, California, where a vapor cloud leaking from an old Chevron refinery pipe caught fire in August.

• Equal Voice families are fighting for fair working conditions and wages, against foreclosures and for equity in education.

Here are five questions for President Obama and Governor Romney from people who are part of the Equal Voice movement:

Jason and Dana Beasley Brown, both 30 years old, live in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Jason is the executive director of family ministries at Broadway United Methodist Church. Dana cares for their two children, ages 4 and 2.

They grew up in working class families and neither of their parents obtained a four-year college degree. However, Jason and Dana both earned bachelor’s degrees with the help of public grants and loans, and publicly funded scholarships, and are concerned that young people today won’t have that same opportunity. They ask:

“How will you ensure that all children—especially children from families who cannot afford to pay for postsecondary schooling—can earn an advanced degree?”

Star Paschal, 31, lives in Auburn, Alabama, with her three daughters. She is the Section 8 property manager at Auburn Housing Authority.

Paschal argues that the barriers preventing the working poor from greater opportunity and security are commonly interrelated, including a lack of access to high quality childcare, high performing public schools, higher education, living wage jobs and transportation. She asks:

“Is it a priority of your administration to address the systemic hurdles imposed on working-poor families? If so, explain your comprehensive plan to do so.”

Marilynn Montano, 18, is a student at Santa Ana College in Southern California. Her generation is the first in her family to go to college. Montano is majoring in journalism and plans to pursue a PhD in Chicano studies. Her family has often lived in overcrowded conditions and lost its condominium unit to foreclosure. She asks:

“California has seen a lot of home foreclosures and evictions. Many families not only can’t afford to buy a home, they can’t even afford to pay rent. What will you do to help low-income families afford housing?”

Frank Fregoso, 17, is a high school student in Santa Ana, California. He is an active volunteer in his community, including at The Cambodian Family and the Latino Health Access. A passionate artist, he plans to attend college to study music therapy, philosophy, English or the arts. He lives with his parents, two younger sisters and younger brother. He asks:

“Why do you think there is a crisis in the economy, and how can it be resolved without raising taxes or cutting the budgets of schools and other essential organizations for the community?”

Sheldon Smith, 24, was born and raised in Chicago, one of five children in a low-income family. His father moved in and out of his life. Smith became a father when he was 21. Today, nothing motivates him more than his love for his 3-year-old daughter and his community.

As founder of The Dovetail Project—a program to help young men acquire the parenting and life skills they need to be better fathers—Smith has worked with hundreds of youth throughout Chicago. He believes that helping one generation be better parents can mean a better life for many future generations. He asks:

“For the fathers I work with at the Dovetail Project, employment is one of the most important issues. The unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds for August 2012 was 12.7 percent. How will you support young parents ages 17 to 24 who need the opportunity to earn a living wage for their families?”

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