The Missing Debate on Poverty

The home-owning middle class was the muse of both presidential candidates in Tuesday's town hall-style debate.

Within minutes of Tom Brokaw's introduction, Senator Barack Obama argued that, "The middle class needs a rescue package. And that means tax cuts for the middle class." Senator John McCain didn't waste any time boldly invoking his version: "You know that home values of retirees continue to decline and people are no longer able to afford their mortgage payments. As president of the United States...I would order the Secretary of the Treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America."

Their strategic messages on the welfare of the middle class were loud and clear for the rest of the Nashville evening, but in this time of economic crisis, it was their silence on poverty that was truly deafening.

In tough economic times, poverty is more than an afterthought. Americans may not be eager to identify themselves as the so-called "working poor," but many in the "middle class" are just one paycheck away from being destitute. And the most in peril are women.

According to the National Women's Law Center, more than 14.1 million American women -- about one in eight -- are poor. Women are 40% more likely to live in poverty than men. Female-headed families with children make up the majority of poor families in this country.

So why is it that we heard nothing last night about helping the 14 million women in the U.S. who can't afford a mortgage or a tank of gas, much less tomorrow morning's breakfast for her hungry, uninsured kids? Did the issue of poverty disappear with John Edwards's hasty exit from the political scene?

It certainly wasn't for lack of opportunity that neither candidate addressed poverty head-on last night. Our broken health care system, the subject of extensive debate, is an issue that poor women and children in this country are most acutely affected by. Seven out of ten adult Medicaid beneficiaries are women, and one-third of all low-income women, and four out of ten single mothers, receive health care coverage from Medicaid. If, as Senator McCain has suggested in previous speeches, he froze all public spending except on the military, thousands of families would be left with no option but catastrophic debt if grandma slips on the ice this winter or junior needs his appendix taken out.

Further, women have more extensive health care needs because of their reproductive roles and longer life spans, and while they are not -- on the whole -- less likely to be insured, they are more likely to have substandard insurance or spend part of the year uninsured. According to the Commonwealth Fund, women are more than twice as likely as men to get employer-sponsored insurance through their spouses, making them more vulnerable in case of divorce or job loss. Older women are particularly vulnerable; there are 3.5 million uninsured women between the ages of 50 and 64.

Unemployment, another issue referenced repeatedly last night, was also a golden and, indeed, missed opportunity for the candidates to address poverty. Jobless women are about 10 percent less likely than jobless men to receive unemployment benefits because of outdated eligibility rules that disproportionately disqualify women. For those lucky enough to keep a job, the gender wage gap continues (women still earn 77 cents to the male dollar). In 2006, 5.8 million families with children were poor and 62% of these families were headed by women. Senator Obama did refer to his own upbringing in one of these families, even sharing with the American public that his mother once relied on food stamps to get by; now we need to hear what policy initiatives he would support to address the specific needs of unemployed, poor women. We need to hear this from John McCain as well.

In the coming days, we'll be eager to see which candidate has the capacity to address, not just the middle class, but those who would be happy to join the ranks of that middle class. Tackling poverty in this country is not just an act of charity; it's a fundamental pillar of creating a vibrant economy that works for us all.