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Having Our Say

Tavis Smiley – PBS talk show host, PRI radio host Posted: 09/07/2012 8:58 am

Now that the conventions are over, time to prepare for the presidential debates. The candidates have homework to do, but so do we.

There are roughly 300 million American citizens. Each one with an equal right to be heard. But four Americans have been given special status. Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer, Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz: the four journalists selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates to moderate the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates.

I have the utmost respect for my distinguished broadcast colleagues; they have each earned their way onto the debate stage. That said, I reiterate my deep disappointment with the obvious lack of diversity in this group; a group that could have been and should have been more representative of the most multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic America ever. But I have an even greater concern at the moment.

As we move closer to the first debate, October 3, in Denver, Colorado, how do issues that should matter actually get raised in the debate? Case in point: four years ago in the three debates between Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, the word “poor” or “poverty” did not come up one time. Obama didn’t raise it, McCain didn’t raise it, the moderators never asked about it. By the way, two of those moderators are back on stage this year.

This year, both Governor Romney and President Obama at least mentioned the “P” word in their convention speeches, but neither pledged to make the alleviation of poverty in America a priority. Both continued to address the “middle class” when everybody knows that the new poor are the former middle class. Candidates for high office love sharing personal narratives of overcoming poverty, but can’t seem to fully commit themselves to lead in creating a bi-partisan plan that could significantly reduce and eventually eradicate poverty in the richest nation in the world.

So, how do we get the impolite topic of poverty on the agenda for the debates? It’s hard to ignore that 1 in 2 Americans is either living in or near poverty. Hard to ignore the 16 million children now living in poverty. Hard to ignore that more Americans are experiencing long-term unemployment than at any time in recorded history. Hard to ignore the growing lines at food pantries. Hard to ignore all the FORECLOSURE yard signs. Hard to ignore all the recent — and not so recent — college graduates who can’t find work. Hard to ignore the millions of Americans falling through the cracks as government inexplicably draws up the social safety net, diminishing Medicaid, food stamps and other vital social service programs. Hard to ignore the direct link between poverty and joblessness. Hard to ignore.

Yet, I fear that’s exactly what may happen if we don’t remind the candidates and the moderators that poverty in America ought to be abnormal, not the new normal. So, what to do? I say let the moderators hear from you. I don’t know too many of my colleagues who outright refuse to review their mail. It matters to most. And since they’re representing US, why not hear from US?

Greg Kaufmann of The Nation magazine has been doing his homework, chronicling potential questions about poverty in America for President Obama and Governor Romney. Sample questions: What is the appropriate role of government in improving the likelihood that an honest day’s work earns a living wage? What do you think is most important in securing economic mobility for all children, regardless of the incomes or educational attainment of their parents, and how will you accomplish this? As president, what would you do about America’s growing hunger crisis?

So here’s your assignment: I’m sure you have a question for Obama and Romney about how to tackle poverty, and you ought to share that with the debate moderators. Here’s how:



Poor people cannot be rendered invisible in this campaign. This time around, let’s do our homework and make sure that ALL voices are heard.

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