Can our busted politics fix the broken minimum wage?

Strike_and_a_protest_march_for_a_15_minimum_wage_in_Dinkytown (1)
Protest for a $15 minimum wage in Minnesota. Source: Wikipedia

When I spoke with South Philadelphia's Terek Williams the other night, we didn't know yet know about Hillary Clinton's latest email sinkhole, nor did I ask him about Donald Trump's alleged horrendous actions toward women. I don't think it would have made a difference.

For Williams -- 25 and doing his best to raise his two toddler girls on the $11 an hour he earns as a machine operator for a rental truck operation in lower Bucks County -- the only issues that will truly resonate after Tuesday will be anything our 45th president and a new batch of lawmakers can do to lift his family into the middle class.

That means a minimum living wage of $15 an hour -- which for Williams would amount to a 36 percent raise. It pains Williams that he has to prioritize the rent and his other monthly bills, especially as his daughters grow and need more and more things.

"It's not like I don't have a high school diploma or that I'm a slacker, I'm out there trying," said Williams, a graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School. But when he checks into the presidential campaign, when he hears about issues at all, he says it's more likely that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are talking about tax cuts then raising wages for workers like him near the bottom of the ladder.

For the record, Clinton -- after some early hemming and hawing -- has come out for a $15 an hour minimum wage in cities with a high cost of living and $12 elsewhere (while the party platform adopted in Philadelphia in July unequivocally backs $15.) Trump said in July that he supports raising the current federal floor of $7.25 up to $10 -- which wouldn't help Williams. Meanwhile, a Democratic surge in state elections -- considered unlikely -- is about the only thing that could revive efforts to raise Pennsylvania's minimum wage, also stuck at $7.25.

I wanted to put that on the record because you won't hear that much anywhere else. At three presidential debates totalling some four hours and 30 minutes, Trump and Clinton weren't expressly asked about the minimum wage, and it was barely mentioned (by Clinton, during a wide riff on her economic policies.) That despite the fact that a growing number of economists see the flatlined minimum wage on the national level and in laggard state capitals like Harrisburg as both the most important and yet the simplest step that government could take to tackle America's widening income gap.

But then maybe this shouldn't be a big surprise. A lot of big policy issues have barely been raised in the 2016 campaign. There were no debate questions and hardly any political discussion about climate change, even as the planet sweltered through month after month of records for average temperatures and as scientists believed that warmer, moister air exacerbated the recent deadly flooding in North Carolina and in Baton Rouge. Here in Philadelphia -- the largest city in a battleground state that has drawn intense interest from both major campaigns -- a recent report found the highest rate of deep poverty of any major U.S. city. The candidates' positions on ending poverty? Crickets, mostly.

The media has also played a huge role in this political embarrassment. As noted here yesterday in another context, the convulted and highly politicized kerfuffle over Clinton's emails has received three times as much coverage on the nightly network news as all stories about substantive policy issues combined.  It's almost as if there are two political campaigns -- the loud bombastic one of shrieking overpaid pundits arguing about how the grabbing or sexting of various genitalia will affect the vote, and the quiet rowhouse desperation of middle-class voters worried about bread and butter.

When canvassers for the liberal Working Families Party went into neighborhoods like South Philadelphia, they found people like Williams and Dante Brown -- also 24 and raising his 5-year-old godson -- willing and eager to talk with somebody, or anybody, about the minimum wage issue.

Brown actually wishes he were doing as well as his neighbor Williams; he said he brings home just $8.25 an hour from his job as a cleaner for the food-service contractor at Lincoln Financial Field. "It's a struggle," he told me. "It's pretty much check to check."

He wonders why candidates like Clinton or her political soulmate -- Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty -- don't say more about the wage issue. That's a great question. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found 74 percent of Pennsylvania voters want to raise the minimum wage and 62 percent want a graduated rise to $15 an hour.

Yet the candidates have decided instead to bombard us with millions of dollars of trivia before every TV weather report and during every Eagles' timeout. Yet even some conservatives have begun to question why taxpayers are subsidizing some low-wage workers with benefits like food stamps, picking up the slack for profitable private employers.

Indeed, Williams recalled a time when his struggle forced him to accept public assistance, and it hurt. "It took away my self-esteem and how I feel about my manhood," he recalled. "I feel I can take care of myself."

He deserves that opportunity. But the candidates, and the system, would have to actually listen to voters like him. Right now, the American political system is practically drowning in useless information. Can it possibly rally to throw the middle class a life preserver in 2017?