Will Hidden Issues Make The Agenda Next Term?

Host Michel Martin continues the conversation about the big issues missing on the campaign trail. Issues like crime, caregiving, poverty and climate change might affect millions of people, but they may not win a lot of votes. Martin speaks with a panel of journalists about whether these issues will enter the conversation over the next four years.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the debate over the rising tide of homework. Many parents are putting in overtime, but not on the job. Something worse, their kids' science experiments and projects for younger and younger kids. In our parenting roundtable, we're going to weigh in on how much is too much homework and some strategies for coping without tearing out whatever hair you have left. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we're going to continue our conversation on the issues that have not been talked about very much, despite all the talking that's been done during this campaign season. Our guests are NPR's David Schaper in Chicago. Here in Washington, D.C., NPR's Marilyn Geewax and Jennifer Ludden. And also The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger.

Melinda Henneberger, before we took a short break, we were talking about the fact that, you know, caregiving is a hugely important issue, affects millions of Americans across the economic spectrum. A large number of people are now considered to live in poverty and yet these issues have not received much attention in this election year.

Is part of the issue here that there is not an idea entrepreneur for some of these issues? For example, climate change was not very much a part of the campaign until the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, invoked climate change as an issue in his endorsement of President Obama and he says that he feels that the tropical storm that just - that moved up along the East Coast and has really caused so much havoc in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states is attributable, in part, to climate change and that he now says that he wanted to use his endorsement as a vehicle to talk about climate change.

Is part of the issue that the issues that we've been talking about have lacked a visible idea entrepreneur like that?

MELINDA HENNEBERGER: I don't think so. I think it's been a lack in a lot of cases of political courage and unwillingness to spend the political capital and, as others have said, if you're not going to get votes on it, why should we go there? And that, for climate change, has been a problem for decades, even when the man who spent much of the rest of his life dedicating himself on the issue of climate change, had already - this is Al Gore, of course - written "Earth in the Balance" at the time he ran in 2000. I covered that campaign - barely spoke about it on the stump. Why? His advisors at the time told me it only ranked 13th on the radar of voters, thus, why discuss it?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: David Schaper, what about you? What's your perspective on this?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, you know, I think it's interesting. I think, when we talk about the economy and you hear Mitt Romney say, I'll create 12 million new jobs, and even the president, when he talks about the jobs that are being created in recent months and over the past couple of years, if you look around the country, these are lower wage jobs and, if you - you know, start looking at the domino effect of people working more for less - well, how do you afford child care? How do you afford to have your parents looked after if you've got elderly folks that you have moved back into your home? I mean, these are issues that families are confronting and I know people personally who choose not to work because they just can't afford to hire a sitter for three kids. You know, it's a wash when it comes out to what they're getting paid in low wage jobs.

So it may be one of these things that is just - it's a little too early on that issue, in particular, but I do feel like, you know, it all comes back to where are the votes and just folks, you know, in these campaigns don't feel like they're going to win on these issues.

MARTIN: Jennifer, what do you think?

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Do you know, in the early '70s, a bipartisan Congress passed a national child care law, which Nixon then vetoed? I don't think out of any great ideological opposition. The account I read was that - well, he was about to go to China. It looked a little socialistic. I'm not sure if that's accurate.

MARTIN: What did the law do?

LUDDEN: It would have provided national child care.

HENNEBERGER: That's exactly what I was going to say.

MARTIN: Really?

LUDDEN: And what happened is that Pat Buchanan talked him out of it on the social issues front.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What would the law have done? It would have provided child care on the order of what?

LUDDEN: Subsidized. Nationally subsidized.

MARTIN: Nationally subsidized child care?

LUDDEN: Yes. Child care.

MARTIN: Like the school lunch program?

LUDDEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: That kind of idea?

LUDDEN: Yeah, yeah. So look how - I mean, just another example of how far apart, maybe, we've come on these issues. I don't know. I mean, when you talk about helping people with child care, obviously, there's an impact in the workplace. That's business. You know, there's competing interest here, but these issues are going to become more pressing. The baby boomers started turning 65 last year and that is going to put enormous pressure - there is projections of a labor shortage if we don't have enough home health aides.

Ninety-five percent of people want to stay in their home, age in their home, but they're going to need help as we live longer with chronic conditions and it's not just going to be a mommy issue. You're going to have men in the workplace needing to do something to help their parents.

MARTIN: I understand that, though, Jennifer, but it's - and all of you have made the point that these aren't exclusively women's issues, but there has been so much conversation this election year about the so-called women's vote, the gender gap and women's issues and I believe it is the case that women still are disproportionately primary caregivers for both children and the elderly, so with all the attention...

HENNEBERGER: It is true. Very true.

MARTIN: ...to women's - to women's vote...

HENNEBERGER: And home health aides are largely middle-aged women.

MARTIN: So, with all the attention to the women's vote, it just seems curious that this was not discussed as an issue. Marilyn Geewax...

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Michel, one of the things that really makes it difficult to get poverty issues and some of these women's issues talked about is poor people tend to be listed as - very disproportionately as independent. They don't really get involved in the Democratic Party. They don't get involved in the Republican Party. They also don't vote at the same rate as wealthier people and, obviously, if you're poor, you're probably not contributing to political campaigns.

So part of being poor in this country is often being politically isolated. When you have a job that - even if you're working class or lower middle class, often, people might belong to a union. They have a workplace that helps shape their point of view. You're more connected to the economy and the political process.

The problem for poor people is that they are not only poor in financial capital, but also this sort of social political capital that gets them more into the game and able to influence politics.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, this has been an interesting discussion. I wanted to ask each of you, is there a prospect in the next administration, whoever is elected president, that any of these issues are sleeper issues likely to come to the fore, even if not discussed? Melinda, what do you think?

HENNEBERGER: I think that climate change is going to be on the table, no matter who's president, no matter how much they get in donations from the energy lobby because we're spending billions on cleanup from these stronger storms that are going to keep happening and I think that on the financial front we can't continue to ignore it.

MARTIN: David Schaper?

SCHAPER: On the issue of crime, I don't see, for example, gun control necessarily being an issue for either administration, whether it's a Republican or Democratic administration moving forward. The issue of privatizing prisons, though - that, you know, could come up. You know, other laws, in terms of getting tough on crime - it seems like we've done all of that already and there's little room for further administrations getting tougher on crime than the previous because I don't see really where there is to go on that.

But, you know, the only criminal issue, I think, might - that might come up to the national level is the trend that we've seen in some states to privatize prisons.

MARTIN: Jennifer Ludden?

LUDDEN: I think, if President Obama is elected, certainly many home health care advocates are hoping he will implement these rules to let them have - qualify for minimum wage and overtime and the Obama administration has done a number of smaller programs very under the radar, funding states to create pay leave programs. I think things like that will continue.

If we have a President Romney, I have not heard anything coming from him on this. Many Republicans, you know, would tend to take the side of business, which doesn't want formal programs for equal pay or flex time, but do say that they realize this is happening and they support businesses individually accommodating their employees.

MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax?

GEEWAX: I think we'll hear a lot more about this issue in 2013 because that stimulus money that I referred to that - the big boost in spending on food stamps is expiring in October of 2013. So, by next fall, there will be a lot of people - there's 16 million poor children out there that are going to be losing some of those supplemental benefits that they've been getting and unemployment benefits are also expiring for a lot of long-term workers, so you'll have more and more households that will not have a check to help with unemployment and they will be losing their nutritional assistance.

So, as that goes forward, there'll have to be some pretty tough choices made where Congress will either have to renew some of this aid or allow it to expire as it runs down with this fiscal cliff that we're facing as some of these things expire next year.

MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax is a senior business editor here at NPR. Jennifer Ludden is a national desk correspondent here at NPR. They were here in Washington, D.C., along with Melinda Henneberger. She's a political writer for The Washington Post. With us from Chicago, David Schaper. He's an NPR correspondent who covers the Midwest.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

HENNEBERGER: Thank you, Michel.

SCHAPER: Thanks.

GEEWAX: Great to be here.

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