During both the first presidential debate and last week’s vice presidential debate, moderators said that they wanted to focus on “the economy,” an admirable sentiment considering the still slow recovery that is underway. However, “the economy” has, for the most part, meant discussing taxes and the budget deficit. Those are important issues, but they by no means account for all of the economic challenges that the nation faces.
For starters, neither candidate has been pushed on how they plan to bring unemployment down below its current 7.8 percent. Romney merely promises to create the number of jobs that economists say will come along regardless of who is president, while Obama hasn’t had to address record high long-term unemployment. Here are eight other significant issues that the candidates should be asked about during tonight’s debate:
1) Housing: While the housing market is slowly recovering, it still remains a drag on the economic recovery. President Obama should be asked to explain why his administration was so slow to change foreclosure prevention programs that were clearly not meeting their goals, and why he has not named a new director for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (since the current acting director is blocking policies that would help troubled homeowners). Romney, meanwhile, should be asked to flesh out a housing plan that has absolutely no details.
2) Poverty: More than 46 million Americans — 15 percent of our population — now live at or below the federal poverty level, and the United States has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world. So why does Romney support a budget that takes 62 percent of its spending cuts from programs that help the poor? How would Obama protect the poor from spending cuts in any “grand bargain” deficit deal he might sign?
3) Breaking up the big banks: The nation’s biggest banks are back to making pre-recession profits. In the last several months, high ranking economic officials, as well as several former Wall Street titans, have called for breaking up or capping the size of those banks. Do either of the candidates support such a step? Why or why not?
4) Mass transit: More Americans are using mass transit and driving less and less. But the U.S. mass transit system trails those of its peer nations, and fails to connect workers who need it most to their jobs. How would Romney square this increasing demand with his desire to cut funding for Amtrak? Does President Obama have any plans to push transit development beyond the infrastructure investments included in his never-passed American Jobs Act?
5) Income inequality: The level of inequality in the United States now rivals countries like Pakistan and the Ivory Coast. This inequality crushes economic mobility for America’s shrinking middle class and its growing number of working poor. Romney said that a focus on income inequality was “about envy” and said it should only be talked about in a quiet room. Does he view income inequality as a serious issue threatening the future of America’s economy, and if so, how do his policies address it? How would Obama bolster the lower- and middle classes and reduce the growth of inequality aside from increasing some tax rates on the richest Americans?
6) The Farm bill: The last farm bill expired, leaving several programs that support farmers and public health efforts out to dry. But the expiration also provides an opportunity for Congress to reevaluate wasteful agriculture subsidies. Where do the candidates stand on a path forward for the farm bill?
7) Student loans: Total student loan debt is expected to hit $1 trillion in 2012, and a record number of Americans are now in debt thanks to such loans. College costs have sextupled since 1985, and student debt is hurting young adults’ ability to buy houses, get jobs, and transition into full members of the American economy. Even worse, the student debt crisis is starting to resemble the housing crisis. The Affordable Care Act, which Romney opposed, contained significant student loan reforms that reduce costs by removing banks from the federal student loan process. Would he include that in his proposed repeal of Obamacare? What would Obama do to further address the growth in both debt and the cost of college, and how would he ensure that more Americans can afford a college education?
8) Equal pay: Even as more women are becoming top earners in their households, women in the United States make just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the gap is worse for women of color. The average woman loses more than $430,000 over her lifetime because she makes less than men for doing the same work. The Romney campaign refused to say if he supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, though it later clarified that he “support[s] pay equity.” Would he support the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would take substantial steps to close the pay gap? For President Obama, more than three years since the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Act, the pay gap is mostly unchanged. How would he proceed to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work?