Spotlight Exclusives

The Election 2012 Poverty Debate: A Discussion with Obama and Romney Policy Directors – Part One

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President Obama began his second term this week by declaring in his inaugural address that “a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” With those words as a backdrop, Spotlight is taking a look back at the evolving focus on poverty and opportunity during the past election season. To gauge where the policy debate on this critical issue has been, and where it is likely headed, we interviewed James Kvaal, policy director for President Obama۪s re-election campaign, and Lanhee Chen, policy director for the Romney campaign.

In separate interviews, both were asked the same set of questions focusing on the role of poverty and opportunity in their respective campaigns. Spotlight is presenting their answers in a two-part series beginning this week.


This is part one of the two part series. Read part two here.

Spotlight: In what way do you feel poverty was a part of the campaign? Or was it not an issue at all?

James Kvaal: The single most important question of the campaign was how to restore strong economic growth and make sure those benefits are widely shared. We need to do more to strengthen the economic recovery, but we also need to address the longer-term challenges of stagnant incomes, too few good jobs, and rising costs of everything from housing to health care to college. President Obama proposed steps to make the middle class larger, stronger and more secure through policies like education, creating skilled jobs, more secure retirement, a reformed health care system, and other efforts to create opportunity, to help more people into the middle class and to prevent people from falling out of it. The Republicans proposed a very different approach, with a top-down approach centered on large tax cuts for a few people.  And ultimately, voters agreed that investing in the future was the right answer for struggling families as well as middle-class families and the economy as a whole.

Lanhee Chen: One of the crucial questions animating the election was which candidate would better provide for economic opportunity. Ultimately we saw the mandate to fight poverty through the lens of how to create opportunity for more Americans, grow the middle class and how to bring people from poverty to a working wage and eventually to the middle class. We felt those were important questions to address. The economic plan that Governor Romney laid out was designed in many ways to expand economic opportunity for those who were poor and near poor with the idea that if you look at the history of modern civilization, the only economic system that has promoted a growing middle class was free enterprise. So we asked: what were the kinds of policy choices that a federal government could make to promote opportunity by expanding free enterprise?

Spotlight: What was your campaign’s approach to addressing poverty and the needs of low-income Americans? What policies did you advocate for?

JK: Again, it would be a mistake to segregate those questions from the broader questions focusing on the challenges facing most Americans.  There۪s a fair amount of mobility among those groups, and the steps we need to take to help more people into the middle-class also create opportunity and security for families who are already there. Take education. The questions of expanding access to early childhood education, improving the quality of those programs, reforming elementary and secondary schools, strengthening the teaching profession, making colleges more affordable, tying community college training programs to employers۪ needsall of those things are very important to the future of the middle class and also create opportunities for people currently living below the poverty line. And that۪s true for housing, child care, consumer protection, and many other issues.

At the same time, we also need to make special efforts to include struggling families and communities.  The Recovery Act helped keep 10 million people out of poverty in 2010. It included tax cuts for low-income workers and families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Children۪s Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Credit. They were policies President Obama wanted to extend while Governor Romney explicitly proposed ending them. Since the election, President Obama has extended those credits for another five years. President Obama has also created the Promise Neighborhood initiative with a comprehensive approach based on Harlem Children Zone. And the Choice Neighborhoods initiative builds on HUD۪s HOPE VI program to strengthen neighborhoods with housing, economic development and education and training programs. We should give these areas the resources they need to find local solutions.

LC: We had skepticism about the impact that expanding government spending or expanding particular programs would have on fighting poverty. We took a position relatively early on, for example, against stimulus spending, some of which included expansions of various social programs. We didn۪t feel that kind of approach at the end of the day was going to address the issues and needs of the unemployed or those who found themselves in poverty because they were unemployed. We felt that what had to happen was that our economic engine needed a reboot. And that would have been the most important thing to do for those struggling for work and facing economic difficulty because of the poor economy.

Spotlight: Was there an idea around poverty or opportunity you wish had played a more significant role in the campaign?

JK: To be honest, I do think that the full difference in the vision between the two candidates was underappreciated. Governor Romney proposed $5 trillion in tax cuts and $2 trillion in new defense spending, while claiming to make deep cuts in other areas and balance the budget.  There۪s no way to do all that even if you shred the rest of domestic spending.  Some experts estimated that 50 million fewer Americans would have health insurance under Romney۪s plans. So the election was a choice between major issues maybe the greatest in modern history.

LC: I think we could have done a better job at articulating our belief structure in the importance of promoting a strong and healthy economyhow that would have helped people like the chronically unemployed or the chronically poor as well as those who fell into poverty. For example, there were elements of our tax reform plan that we believed were very important to creating long-term economic prosperity even for those who were very poor working their way up the spectrum. That included incentives to savings and investments, which there are very little right now for those populations for obvious reasons. But you want to create a system that incentivizes those kinds of behaviors because that۪s ultimately what helps people rise out of poverty into the middle class. Could we have done a better job at articulating how those kinds of policies would have impacted the poor and near poor? I absolutely think we could have.

Now, there are a number of our Republican Party leaders who have talked about the importance of an agenda to fight poverty. And part of that is economic opportunity and questions of how to promote more stable families, which can be an important factor as well. There are certain government safety net programs that have to remain strong and in place. How do you ensure those programs are getting funding and that the right people who really need them are getting access?  And how do you ensure that they are a transitional set of policies as opposed to permanent policies?

Spotlight: How do you think the media did on this issue in its campaign coveragedid it receive adequate attention? If not, why not?

JK: I۪m not a media critic. But I do think that more discussion of the differences (between the two candidates) would have been welcome.

LC: In general, the focus of the media was on the horse race. I don۪t fault them for that. There was a vast deficit of attention paid to substantive policy questions, whether it was how to fight poverty or stimulate economic growth. If you look at the last two weeks of the campaign, (Representative) Paul Ryan gave a speech on the importance of addressing questions of how we deal with poverty in the U.S. and upward mobility. That is a theme that started during the campaign and people like Paul and others will continue to talk about that. To what extent it gets covered, I don۪t know. I don۪t know if the appetite is thereit۪s not in the moment, it۪s not “sexy.” I۪m pessimistic frankly that people in the news media will take the time to cover it.

Stay tuned for the second half of these two interviews.

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