Obama-Romney Debate
What do the candidates have to say about economic issues that aren't centered on taxes or the budget deficit? Reuters

The U.S. economy -- as we have been told time and time again -- is the driving focus of this presidential election, as Republicans aim to disparage President Barack Obama for the nation’s sluggish growth since his election four years ago.

That was clear during the first president debate and last week’s vice presidential debate, when both moderators said they wanted to focus on “the economy.” Judging from the debates alone, one could easily assume that taxes and the budget deficit are the only issues worth mentioning when discussing the economy – because, so far, those are the only issues that have been specifically addressed. But while those are undoubtedly important issues, they by no means encompass the entirety of economic challenges faced by average Americans.

Thursday’s night’s town-hall style presidential debate, where questions will come directly from voters, could finally give the American public an opportunity to see how the candidates would address economic problems not centered on tax policy and the deficit. In fact, here are five other significant economic concerns that will, hopefully, be touched upon:

1. Poverty

Fifteen percent of the American population, or about 46 million people, currently lives at or below the federal poverty level – defined as a $23,000 annual household income for a family of four. Therefore, it’s safe to say there are millions of other families struggling to make ends meet, even if they are not technically living in poverty under the federal government’s guidelines.

As a result, the United Nations Children’s Fund reports the United States has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world, trailing countries such as Cyprus, Slovakia and Estonia. And yet, Romney supports a proposed House Republican budget (authored by his running mate) that would institute cuts disproportionately affecting programs and tax credits that aid low-income families, such as the federal food stamp program, Medicaid and Pell Grants.

While Obama has pledged to preserve that spending, one can’t help but wonder which programs he would sacrifice in any deficit deals he may be forced to strike with the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

2. Housing

The U.S. housing market, while slowly recovering, was still the primary reason for the financial collapse -- a burst housing bubble that drove banks into the ground and plunged the nation into the Great Recession.

It’s certainly an issue that has directly impacted more Americans than the federal deficit or theoretical tax reform programs. Tens of thousands of homebuyers were victimized by the housing crisis – and many of those still have the underwater mortgages to prove it. While Obama tried to put some (largely unsuccessful) reforms in place to help the affected save their homes, the president has blamed Congress for blocking measures that would help the recovery.

The Romney campaign has been relatively silent about the candidate’s housing plan. It may be because the campaign does not have one. The candidate does not have a clear strategy when it comes to strengthening foreclosure prevention, according to a campaign white paper, which simply stated a Romney-Ryan administration would “bring clarity in this area” without explaining how they would do so.

3. Equal Pay

Women still earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man in a comparable position, while the pay gap is even wider for women of color. The average woman loses about $430,000 over the course of a 40-year working career, according to the Center for American Progress, a loss that is particularly felt in a day and age where women are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American households.

Although President Obama notably supported the passage of both the Lily Ledbetter Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act (the latter of which ultimately stalled in Congress), it stands to note the gender pay gap has not budged in over three years. So how would he proceed to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work?

Romney has refused to say if he supported the Ledbetter law or the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was opposed by most congressional Republicans. His campaign has insisted the former Massachusetts governor “supports pay equity” but has never specified which steps -- if any -- the candidate would take to close the wage gap.

4. Student Loans

Nearly one in five American households are now bogged down by student loan debt, according to the Pew Research Center – a record number. Total student debt, which is expected to hit $1 trillion in 2012, has the largest impact on poor and middle class Americans, particularly recent graduates and young adults.

So what would the candidates do to address that skyrocketing debt and ensure more Americans can afford a college education? How would Obama expand federal funding for student loans, a pledge he has consistently made on the campaign trail? Once, the president indicated he would even support a student loan "bailout" for government loans -- is that still the case?

The Romney campaign has not addressed student debt relief, aside from arguing that young adults should be fiscally responsible and not attend colleges they or their families cannot afford.

The Affordable Care Act actually contains a rider that expanded federal funding for Pell Grant and ended the practice of federally subsidizing private loans. So would Romney slash that aid if he succeeds in (as he has pledged) repealing the health care law?’

5. Income Inequality

The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans has been rising for decades. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the average real after-tax household income for the top 1 percent of earners rose 275 percent between 1979 and 2007. For middle income earners (the majority of the population) it grew just 37 percent; meanwhile, the bottom quintile of earners experienced the least growth in income, at a dismal 18 percent.

Alan Kruger, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, notably pointed out that “the shift in income inequality over the last three decades is the equivalent of moving $1.1 trillion income from the 99 percent to the top 1 percent every single year.” Although Obama has pushed for ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy while preserving them for middle- and lower-income earners -- which, in theory, would (on top of a proposed income tax increase for individuals earning more than $1 million) create new revenue that could be reinvested into programs that aid those earners -- the president has not outlined other policies that could bolster the middle class.

In a secretly recorded video, Romney said income inequality was “about envy” and “class warfare” and even said the subject should only be discussed in “quiet rooms.” So it would be interesting to see whether a candidate that has framed his campaign around improving the lives of middle-class families actually supports any policies that would aid them directly.