Three months ago, anticipating that the media and presidential campaigns wouldn’t focus on the struggles of the poor and near poor in a substantive way, TheNation.com kicked off a new campaign: “#TalkPoverty: Questions for Obama and Romney.”
In an effort to push the issue of poverty into the mainstream political debate, I profiled and polled five experts who have devoted their lives to fighting poverty—and individuals who have lived in poverty—giving them the opportunity to ask the presidential candidates the questions that they want answers to.
A thriving #TalkPoverty community developed online, and the Half In Ten coalition—comprised of 200 national and local organizations across the country—ran an excellent spin-off campaign to pressure debate moderators to ask President Obama and Governor Romney about their plans to address child poverty. Despite this vibrant campaign—and the outsized focus of the debates on the domestic economy—the moderators never asked a single question about poverty.
At the outset of the #TalkPoverty effort, I promised to hound both campaigns for answers. In the end, it didn’t really require hounding as far as the Obama campaign was concerned—they agreed to respond when I first contacted them. The Romney campaign, on the other hand, initially expressed openness before sending an e-mail last Thursday: “We will not be participating. Thanks for the offer.” It seems that the Romney campaign prefers to continue its strategy of speaking about “the poor” without saying anything of substance about antipoverty policies, or speaking in a manner completely untethered from reality, or outright lying.
I promised both campaigns that we would run the answers without any interpretation, simply let their responses speak for themselves. Here are the answers from the Obama campaign:
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1. In 2011, 20.4 million people in America were living on incomes below half the federal poverty line—less than about $9,000 for a family of three—including over 15 million women and children. That’s up from 12.6 million people in 2000. What will you do to address this growing problem?
President Obama took office in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, threatening the security of families across the country. He took immediate action to address the crisis through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Today, we know that the Recovery Act kept nearly 7 million people out of poverty in 2010, including 2.5 million children. It cut taxes for 95 percent of workers, gave a significant tax cut to low-income families with children, and supported crucial unemployment insurance for those who were hit hardest. The Recovery Act also strengthened Medicaid during the worst of the recession and helped ensure that millions of families had food security to weather the downturn. These steps provided a lifeline for millions of Americans working their way to self-sufficiency who just needed tools to get back on their feet, stay in school, and rejoin the workforce. Though there is still more work to be done, we have seen 31 straight months of private sector job growth and a total of 5.2 million jobs created.
But it isn’t enough merely to get back to where we were before the crisis; we need to continue to take steps to grow the economy from the middle out – not the top down. The President has proposed extending tax cuts for working families that were included in the Recovery Act and will fight to prevent higher income taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year. Through the American Jobs Act, the President has proposed new steps that will accelerate the recovery and create nearly 1 million jobs. The plan would help states keep up to 325,000 teachers, as well as thousands of police officers and firefighters, on the job. President Obama is also calling for immediate new investments to repair crumbling roads and bridges that would put hundreds of thousands of construction workers back to work now and strengthen our economy for the long term.
Even as the President has introduced policies that will lead to strong economic growth, he has also launched bold new initiatives to combat poverty directly. For example, the Administration developed the Choice Neighborhoods programs to address housing, crime, and transportation in order to bring comprehensive neighborhood revitalization to blighted areas. The President also launched the Promise Neighborhoods program, modeled after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, where 37 communities in 18 different states already have plans in place to put education at the center of combating poverty. The program is based on the idea that children need support both in and out of the classroom in order to succeed. Finally, the Administration’s Project Rebuild will create 200,000 jobs by rehabilitating homes and stabilizing home prices in hard-hit lower income areas. These unprecedented efforts are transforming high-poverty neighborhoods with distressed public housing and crumbling schools into communities that are starting to see real growth and get stronger with each day.
2. One in five children in the United States struggles with hunger. As President, what would you do about hunger in America—especially for young children?
President Obama knows that ending childhood hunger in the United States is a moral imperative. President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which represents a major step forward in our nation’s effort to provide all children with healthy food in schools. This landmark bill authorized funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs and increased access to healthy food for low-income children. It allows more universal meal access for eligible students in high poverty communities. Additionally, it expands USDA authority to support meals served to at-risk children in afterschool programs. These efforts demonstrate the President’s strong commitment to programs that directly alleviate childhood hunger, even as he continues to focus on the root causes by doing everything in his power to grow the economy and create jobs.
3. Investments in childcare are key not only to children’s prospects for productive lives but also a family’s ability to work. Yet federal assistance for childcare currently reaches only about one in seven of those who are eligible. What will you do to increase the availability of quality childcare to more low-income children?
Since 2000, the typical family has seen their child care costs grow at twice the rate of their income. Full-time care for an infant often costs more than $10,000, and monthly child care fees for two children are often even higher than what a typical family pays in rent.
Despite these rising costs, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit—a tax break for parents who are paying for childcare just so they can work—has only been increased once in the last 28 years and is not indexed to inflation. President Obama has proposed doubling this tax credit for middle-class families making under $85,000 a year. In fact, nearly all eligible families making under $115,000 a year would get a larger credit. Under the President’s plan, families would be able to claim up to $3,000 in childcare expenses for one child or $6,000 for two children.
Child care costs are especially challenging for low-income working families who, even while striving to enter the middle class, struggle to make ends meet. Before the President took office, assistance for these families had plummeted. That’s why the Obama Administration provided an additional $1.6 billion in child care funding in 2011, the largest one-year increase in 20 years, to serve an additional 235,000 children. Additionally, President Obama is challenging states to develop effective, innovative models for expanding early and pre-K learning programs. In his second term, President Obama will continue to work with Congress to improve the quality of care for all children and decrease costs for working families.
4. Government statistics show that over 1 in 3 Americans—approximately 106 million people—are living on incomes below about $46,000 for a family of four (below twice the federal poverty line). This reflects the large number of low-wage jobs in the nation. What will you do to increase the income of working people who are struggling to make ends meet every month and also the number of jobs that provide family-supporting wages?
Even as many Americans are still looking for work, numerous industries in the U.S. have difficulty filling high-wage jobs that require specific technical skills. This is because too many Americans lack access to the kind of practical and specialized training that these higher-wage jobs require. In the coming years, America will need to fill millions of good-paying mid- and high-level skilled positions in high-growth industries from healthcare to advanced manufacturing, from clean energy to information technology.
President Obama has taken unprecedented steps to help bridge the skills divide and ensure that all Americans have access to the training they need to get high-wage jobs. To accomplish his goal of training an additional 2 million workers in high growth industries, the President proposed the Community College to Career Fund. This initiative would create partnerships between community colleges and businesses to train workers for jobs that exist today.
5. The United States can expect to see about 100,000 veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate for veterans ages 18 to 24 in 2011 was 30.2 percent. In 2010, an estimated 76,000 veterans experienced homelessness on any given night, and 1.2 million veterans used mental health services that year. What will you do to make sure that our veterans are supported in their re-entry into civilian life—with vocational support that translates into good jobs with good wages; and also support for veterans whose opportunities have been limited by physical or mental injuries?
President Obama firmly believes that no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job when they come home. Last November, he signed two new tax credits into law to help put our veterans and wounded warriors back to work today. The Obama Administration is strengthening transition programs to ensure that service members leave the military prepared for civilian careers. It has also forged unprecedented new partnerships between the military and the private sector to make it easier for companies to hire returning service members. This means greater access to jobs in manufacturing, health care, information technology, logistics, and as first responders. President Obama also launched an initiative designed to transform the federal government into the model employer of America’s veterans, and proposed a Veterans Job Corps program that would put up to 20,000 veterans back to work over the next five years as police officers and firefighters and on projects that protect our public lands and resources.
In addition to fighting for veteran jobs, the President is committed to ensuring that our veterans and their families receive high-quality health care. That’s why he signed legislation that ensures funding for veterans’ medical care is allocated a full year in advance, so veteran hospitals can count on predictable and sufficient resources for treating our returning heroes. The Obama Administration is restoring health care coverage for 500,000 veterans who were previously denied because their incomes were only slightly above the required threshold, and is expanding veterans’ access to mental health services. The Obama Administration has also taken steps to get veterans their benefits more quickly and accurately by providing new claims processors and improving training. New investments in technology have led to major improvements, including for the first time offering online applications for initial disability benefits.
Lastly, President Obama is working to ensure that our veterans continue to have access to higher education. As a senator, he pushed for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and has ensured its successful implementation as President. As of March of this year, the Administration has helped more than 800,000 veterans and family members pursue higher education. The President also expanded eligibility and improved the Post-9/11 GI Bill to ensure that these veteran benefits can now be used for vocational programs. To ensure our veterans and military families are able to make the most of their hard-earned education benefits, this year the President issued an Executive Order establishing principles of excellence for educational institutions serving service members, veterans, spouses, and other family members. This new policy not only requires that colleges provide more transparent information about academic outcomes and financial aid options, but also cracks down on recruiting abuses and low-quality programs.
President Obama will continue to stand up for all those who have served.
For more on inequality in this election, check out Greg Kaufmann on Paul Ryan's lies about poverty.