Trump and Clinton barely touch on poverty in first debate

Sigh.

At the beginning of Monday night’s first presidential debates, it looked like the candidates, Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE and Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert Former PepsiCo CEO being considered for World Bank chief post: report Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing MORE, would finally and at last explore the issue of poverty. In fact, the first question from NBC’s Lester Holt, the night’s moderator, was how the candidates would create prosperity.

It’s an important topic, and a timely one, too. We are making incredible gains in this country. In state after state, homelessness is down. Median household income is up.

In fact, the New York Times, quoting a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, trumpeted on Monday that between 2014 and 2015, 3.5 million people have been lifted out of poverty.

But for 43.1 million people – 14 million of them children – there’s been no such boost. For that part of America, the news remains the same.

So this is a strike-while- the-iron-is-hot moment. In order to make a real difference, advocates, activists, and policy makers need to continue their innovative and precedent-setting push on everything from entitlement programs to educational opportunities. We need to take time to rigorously and seriously discuss poverty.

But Monday, at the debate at Hofstra University, was not the night for that. As has happened so often during this history-defiant campaign, things got derailed, and quickly. Holt, who early on was overwhelmed by Trump’s interruptions, started the evening by asking how the candidates would achieve prosperity. Income inequality was mentioned, as was families living paycheck to paycheck.

Clinton started by talking about building an economy that works for all, “and not just those at the top.” This is a familiar theme in her campaign. She talked about profit-sharing and raising the federal minimum wage.

And then it was Trump’s turn, and he started his siren talking about jobs leaving the country and then he threw in his notion that Mexico is building some of the world’s biggest plants, and the topic of poverty was lost in the dust, along with some decorum. Before long, Clinton was calling Trump’s plans “trumped-up trickle-down economy.”

And those families living paycheck to paycheck had long since turned off the television. Sadly, many of those folks are Trump’s base. They are the American workers who’ve seen factory jobs leave the country, the ones who believe making America great again – embroidered onto Trump’s campaign hats, available for $25 – involves doing something completely different.

They’re right. It will. But instead of serious conversation about that, we heard Trump say that he has never admitted guilt in a significant housing discrimination suit – which is hardly proof of innocence. We heard Clinton point to 11 hours of testimony as a measure of her stamina.

With so many other topics to talk about – homeland security, race -- poverty was not mentioned again.

What a lost opportunity.

We know that presidential debates lack gravitas. They always have, save perhaps for the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which, as far as we can tell, did not have drinking games attached to them, or bingo cards with the squares filled with topics – meaty and otherwise. Break for the World, a Christian group dedicated to ending hunger, created a bingo card that included the topics of SNAP (the former food stamp program), and hunger. Those squares remained empty after last night.

We are told that debates do not sway voters, unless it’s a close race, in which case every point counts. But debates can be agenda-setting. Debates can frame the conversations later, when policy and bills are created.

There’s still hope. The vice presidential candidates will meet for one debate; the presidential candidates have two more. Candidates can still return to the topic of poverty. Let’s insist they do.

Campbell is a journalist, author and distinguished lecturer in journalism at the University of New Haven. She is the author of Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl and the upcoming Searching for The American Dream in Frog Hollow. Her work has appeared in the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Magazine, The New Haven Register and The Guardian. Follow her @campbellsl


 

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