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The Streak Continues: 2008–12, Will Anyone #TalkPoverty?

There are 46 million people living in poverty—on less than $18,000 a year for a family of three. 20 million live in deep poverty—surviving on less than $9,000 annually for a family of three. And there are now over 16 million children in poverty—22 percent of all kids—making them our nation’s poorest age group.

Given these horrific numbers, it is stunning that neither Jim Lehrer nor Martha Raddatz deemed poverty to be an issue worth talking about in the first two debates of the presidential campaign.

I would imagine that it’s not just antipoverty advocates who are disappointed in the lack of real discourse about this issue. In January, a poll conducted for Spotlight on Poverty—an initiative of major US foundations to foster debate on poverty and opportunity during the campaign—revealed that 88 percent of likely voters said a presidential candidate’s position on poverty was “important” in determining their vote; nearly half said it was “very important.”

Still, the blame doesn’t lie entirely with the moderators. Just as there were plenty of opportunities for President Obama and Governor Romney to address poverty in a substantive way last week, the same was true in last night’s vice presidential debate.

The Romney-Ryan ticket continues to use the poverty statistic as a bludgeon without offering a single concrete idea on how to create opportunities for low-income people, and without demonstrating the slightest understanding of what people in poverty are experiencing today.

It is stunning that neither Jim Lehrer nor Martha Raddatz deemed poverty to be an issue worth talking about in the first two debates of the presidential campaign.For its part, the Obama campaign seems to have made a decision not to talk about poverty unless asked. For example, when Congressman Ryan said that his faith informs him “about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life,” Biden surely could have seized that opening had he wished to. Yes, the question was about abortion, but he could have succinctly answered and pivoted—looking in the camera the way he likes to and said:

“Look folks, Congressman Ryan talks a good game about taking care of the vulnerable, but here’s what he doesn’t tell you: that repealing Obamacare like they want to would leave 30 million Americans uninsured who would have been insured under our plan. That the Romney Medicaid cuts would leave an additional 14 to 19 million low-income people uninsured. That compensation for disabled veterans—which averages less than $13,000 a year—would be cut by one-fifth to one-third, as would pensions for low-income veterans, which now average just $11,000 a year. How’s that for thanking our veterans for their service? SSI benefits for poor elderly and disabled people—which currently average just $6,000 per year—would also be cut by one-fifth to one-third under a Romney administration. Folks, we’re talking about elderly and disabled people who are already living well below the poverty line. And why do Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan take an axe to the benefits of people who are in the most desperate situations? That’s the kicker—for one reason, and one reason only: to give more tax cuts to wealthy people who need them the least. Congressman, I got news for you, if that’s your idea of caring for the vulnerable, I think you better revisit the social doctrine of our shared Catholic faith.”

I don’t doubt that Congressman Ryan would have an articulate response to these assertions—one I’d disagree with, no doubt, but articulate nonetheless. But neither campaign is taking any initiative to have this conversation, and the moderators seem to share their view that it’s just not worth talking about.

So now it’s all about Tuesday and CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley. This very well might be the last shot, since the final presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. You can check out some of the poverty-related questions TheNation.com has gathered from experts and families—and tweet the ones you want answers to—to @crowleyCNN; or get involved with the Half in Ten campaign and push for a question on child poverty.

I don’t know if we will get them to #TalkPoverty in a substantive way—but I do know there’s a growing number of people trying, and that bodes well as we continue to push for attention to the aspirations of those at the bottom of our economy.

Read more of This Week in Poverty here.