What Issues Did The Candidates Miss?

Voters have been bombarded by political ads, but some topics have gotten very little attention this election season. Host Michel Martin speaks with a panel of journalists about some of this election's hidden issues. She speaks with NPR's Marilyn Geewax, Jennifer Ludden, and David Schaper, as well as The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, many residents of the East Coast are still cleaning up after storm damage. In a minute, we will hear from the founder of the group Angie's List about how to avoid home repair scams. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, it's finally here: Election Day. And you may be so sick of all the campaign ads and coverage you've been hearing, you might think you have heard enough about what the candidates and the media consider important. But it occurred to us that despite all the minutes spent talking about issues this year, not every issue that touches the lives of Americans has actually gotten any attention on the campaign trail this year.

We're thinking here about things like crime, climate change, caregiving and poverty. So in these final moments of the 2012 campaign, we decided to talk about why that is and what people should know about those issues. To talk about this, we're joined now by a roundtable of journalists who have been covering these overlooked issues - if we can call them that - all year long, and even before that in many cases, and why they didn't get a lot of play on the campaign trail.

With us now, Marilyn Geewax. She is a senior business editor here at NPR. She's a frequent guest on our program, and we talk to her about the economy. Also with us, Jennifer Ludden. She's a correspondent for NPR's national desk and she covers stories on family life and social issues, and she's done in-depth reporting on caregiving issues facing the country. Also with us, Melinda Henneberger. She's a political writer for the Washington Post. They're all here in Washington, D.C. With us from Chicago, David Schaper. He's one of NPR's Midwest correspondents.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Thanks.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Thank you.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So Marilyn, I'm going to start with you, because we've talked with you all year long about the economy. But it seems to a lot of us that most of the focus has been on the middle class. And I want to ask you first: Do you agree that poverty has not been very much discussed? And just how big of a problem is poverty, should it have been?

GEEWAX: It's interesting that some journalists have gone back through transcripts and actually counted the word poverty, how many times it came up, and it really hasn't been brought up much. The word middle class shows up everywhere. And yet there really has been a tremendous growth in poverty in this country since the Great Recession began.

In 2007, before the Great Recession began, about 13 percent of Americans were in poverty, and now it's up to 15, 16 percent. And that's really this overhang from people losing their jobs, losing their homes. And we've seen a big surge in the number of people who are taking advantage of food stamps.

That's a program that's called SNAP nowadays, the Supplemental Assistance for Nutrition Program. But that growth has really been part of the stimulus bill. When President Obama came into office in early 2009, it was clear that more and more people were going to need food stamps, so there was more money set aside for that. And it's really caused a big expansion in the program, and that's where most of the help for poverty has gone, into trying to keep people fed.

MARTIN: Hmm. Melinda, you're one of the political writers who has written about the fact that poverty has not been very much a part of discussions on the campaign trail.

MELINDA HENNEBERGER: Right.

MARTIN: Can you just give your perspective on why you think that is?

HENNEBERGER: I think it's because it's the perception that there's no constituency for that, that since poor people don't vote, we don't have to address that incredibly important issue. I was an anti-poverty symposium a few weeks ago at Catholic University where one of the speakers said you'd almost think since we hear so much about this being a Christian country that it says in the Bible whatsoever you do unto the middle class, you do unto me.

Because we hear constantly about the middle class, and usually, when we hear about poverty at all in this campaign, it has been Mitt Romney accusing the president of overseeing this economy where so many more people - as Marilyn said - are getting food stamps. But I see the fact that people are getting food stamps as a real success story, if the other option is people going hungry.

MARTIN: But in the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama did talk about poverty.

HENNEBERGER: Did talk more about it.

MARTIN: And talked about ending poverty in a more ambitious fashion.

HENNEBERGER: That's right.

MARTIN: Why isn't he talking about it?

HENNEBERGER: You'd really have to ask the president's people. And I think it's very disappointing that he hasn't talked more about it. I think that there's that perception that when the Republicans are talking about redistribution, maybe it makes him a little bit self-conscious about speaking about poverty. But it really is a problem that, when it's mentioned this year, it has been mentioned by the Republicans as an accusation.

MARTIN: Jennifer Ludden, I want to bring you into the conversation. You know, Democrats had a lot of fun at Mitt Romney's expense during the second debate when he talked about the fact that he had to make an additional effort to bring women into his administration when he was Massachusetts governor because they, you know, wanted to get home to cook for dinner, for example.

LUDDEN: Right.

MARTIN: And so they had a lot of fun. So people - critics of him had a lot of fun talking about the fact that he said he got binders full of women to - you know, eventually he reached out and was able to find qualified candidates and accommodate their caregiving...

LUDDEN: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...you know, caregiving identities. But, apart from that, caregiving is something that affects the economic health of families across the income spectrum, and doesn't just affect women. For example, 10 million Americans now provide care for elderly or disabled parents. And that's not just a women's issue. Did caregiving - other than that example that I know, like I say, became the fodder for, you know, late night comedians and blogospheres...

LUDDEN: Right. A lot of people pointed out what about letting your men get home early? Because a lot of men cook dinner nowadays...

MARTIN: Yeah.

LUDDEN: ...or pick up the children from childcare. Right.

MARTIN: But apart from that, was caregiving...

LUDDEN: No.

MARTIN: ...a part of the conversation at all?

LUDDEN: No.

MARTIN: And if not, why not, in your view?

LUDDEN: Really not on either side. And, again, you know, it's hard to say why but President Obama has talked a lot through his term about equal pay. Democrats in Congress support some legislation about equal pay, and you could argue that would help caregivers who need to pay for, you know, childcare or adult care, or so forth.

But aside from that, it really hasn't gotten much attention. And some people say that with people living longer now, many people will be in the position of caring for their - helping to care for their parents longer than they raise their children. A year ago, President Obama did come out and say that he wants to change the rules.

There's this decades-old exemption that basically sees home health aides - who largely care for the elderly, also some disabled - as babysitters who don't qualify for minimum wage and overtime. He said he wanted to change that, but it still has not gone into effect and advocates for homecare workers are just hanging on now at the bitter end. And, you know, this has happened before.

Clinton did the same thing at the very end of his term, and President Bush refused to implement that kind of change. And they don't know.

MARTIN: But was there a Republican answer to this caregiving, to the whole question of whether there are adequate caregivers and whether they're adequate to the task?

LUDDEN: Well, some members of Congress proposed legislation to make this exemption permanent, so that you would say, no, we think that these people should not qualify ever for overtime and minimum wage. And what they say is, look, you have this difficult situation where elderly people may be on fixed incomes. It's hard for them to afford more.

There's a big advocacy among the disabled who maybe need round-the-clock care, and long shifts with aides who stay overnight. And they say, gosh, if I had to pay them overtime, it would unaffordable for me, and I don't want more rotating shifts of more people taking care of my personal needs. It's a little awkward as it is. I'd like to keep a small band of aides. So it's a very touchy issue.

MARTIN: Marilyn?

GEEWAX: You know, these are not marginal issues. There are 46 million people living below the federal poverty line in this country. That's almost one in six people are poor. You're talking about 16 million children. And then when you look at the issue of caregivers, there are about 75, 78 million baby boomers, and an awful lot of those - we're talking tens of millions of people who are dealing with issues of caregiving.

So I just wanted to make the point: These are not marginal issues that can be easily pushed aside. Even though they haven't gotten attention in this election cycle, they're actually quite important to a very large percentage of the population.

MARTIN: Which is what we're talking about, here. We're talking about issues that are important to large groups of people in the United States that have not gotten a lot of attention during this election year. We're speaking with a roundtable of reporters about that. David Schaper, you're an NPR correspondent based in Chicago.

SCHAPER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: It used to be that we would hear a lot about getting tough on crime during an election season, but it doesn't seem that we've talked a lot about that this year.

SCHAPER: Yeah. You know...

MARTIN: Do you agree with that, and why do you think that is?

SCHAPER: I agree wholeheartedly and it's interesting what a difference of a couple of decades makes. If you go back to 1988, in the race between the first President Bush and Mike Dukakis, who was then the governor of Massachusetts, it was a huge issue. There are the Willie Horton ads used against Mike Dukakis run by President Bush, accusing him of letting a murderer out of prison early so he could murder again.

There is the issue of the death penalty coming up in which Dukakis was asked in one of the debates - and I forget if it was about his wife or his daughter - if she were murdered...

HENNEBERGER: His wife.

MARTIN: His wife.

SCHAPER: Yeah. If she were murdered, wouldn't he support the death penalty then? And it was believed to have hurt him by saying no. In 1992, it was an issue when President Clinton ran for the first time and it seems to have fallen off the table now, not that crime doesn't exist. I mean, I'm living in a city right now where we've already surpassed, you know, a week ago, our entire total of homicides for all of last year this year. The homicide rate is greater, even, in cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee. In swing states, you would think that these are issues that would rise to the level of a presidential campaign.

But my feeling is - my hunch is that it's just not something that either candidate feels like they will win votes on by trying to be either tough on crime or trying to talk about programs that may help reduce crime, that we've just gotten past that in this country.

MARTIN: David, I'm curious about this because - just to add some additional information here, more than 440 people have died in homicides in Chicago this year and, as you said, that's a 20 percent increase from this point last year. Chicago is the place that the president claims as his hometown. Are community leaders there asking why the president hasn't been more vocal on this? And, frankly, is it puzzling that perhaps even the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has not used that information to criticize the president?

SCHAPER: A lot of people are upset and it's not just crime, per se, or the homicide rate in and of itself, but a broader swath of urban issues have not come to the fore in the Obama presidency, and there are people who are upset and I think very disappointed, particularly here in Chicago. Does that mean that they vote for the other guy, though? They don't feel like - I think most of them don't feel like these issues would be any better resolved under President Romney.

The question I raise and I wonder about is if, in some cities like in Milwaukee, like a Cleveland, if they could drive down just voter turnout among folks who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, people who are living in poverty - if they are so disappointed in the lack of action that they've seen from the White House in the last four years, that they just say, eh, it's not worth voting and then, because they wouldn't vote for the Republican, the Democrat, Mr. Obama, could possibly be hurt in states where just a couple of thousand votes might make the difference.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation talking about some of the important issues that have not received extensive coverage during this election year. Our guests are reporters who cover these issues, NPR's David Schaper, who was speaking just now, Marilyn Geewax, Jennifer Ludden. We're also joined by The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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