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Stagnant Wages Could Drive Voters At The Polls Next Week

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Most Americans say they are unhappy with the state of the U.S. economy. Over and over voters tell pollsters the economy is their number one concern going into next week's midterm elections, but we're not hearing much about it from candidates. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on why that might be.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: If you look at some of the numbers making headlines these days, it's a little hard to understand Americans deep economic funk. Businesses are hiring at the fastest pace since the late '90s, corporate profits are up and in much of the country gasoline is selling for less than $3 a gallon. As President Obama told students at Northwestern University this month, some really good things are happening.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Across the board, the trend lines have moved in the right direction.

HORSLEY: And yet, a new poll out today from ABC and The Washington Post finds less than 1 in 3 Americans believe the economy is getting better. Matthew Slaughter, who was an economic adviser to George W. Bush, suggests that's because even though more people are working these days, average wages have barely budged.

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: Americans have long been sophisticated pocketbook voters and they understand what's happening with their pocketbooks. And the large majority of American workers - their incomes have not been rising for many, many years.

HORSLEY: Melissa Boteach of the left-leaning Center for American Progress says part of the problem is the way the country's economic pie is divvied up. Even though the pie has gotten bigger since the recession, nearly all the growth has gone to the wealthy while most working people's slices have stayed the same.

MELISSA BOTEACH: So the stock market can rebound; economic growth can take hold, but if it's not translating into wage growth, you're going to see family budgets getting squeezed.

HORSLEY: Income inequality has been a hot topic in policy circles this year, thanks in part to Thomas Pikety's best-selling book on the subject. But it's largely missing from the political campaign. To be sure, inequality and sluggish growth are long-standing problems that don't yield themselves to easy answers. But with less than a week to go before the midterms, economist Slaughter, who's now at Dartmouth, says congressional candidates haven't been trying all that hard.

SLAUGHTER: They see the polls, and they understand that pervasive anxiety. But at the same time, I think a lot of the campaigns aren't proposing the kinds of expansive policy reform that would meaningfully enhance the quality of job creation.

HORSLEY: Instead, a quick survey of campaign rhetoric finds mostly tired, paint-by-numbers arguments about outsourcing, government spending and regulation.

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THOM TILLIS: We need a senator that understands government doesn't create jobs. It kills job.

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JEANNE SHAHEEN: Why in the world would you support outsourcing American jobs overseas?

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TOM COTTON: We need to get back to basics. We need to balance our budget. We need to pass a balanced budget amendment.

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MICHELLE NUNN: We need to grow the economy, cut spending and reform our tax code.

HORSLEY: Those are Senate candidates Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Michelle Nunn in Georgia. Boteach complains candidates aren't saying much about how to promote more equitable growth or steps to boost workers' bargaining power. She'd like to see a higher federal minimum wage, early childhood education and more generous tax credits for low-wage workers.

BOTEACH: Our political system so far has not been up to the task, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't be.

HORSLEY: Slaughter, the former Bush adviser, offers his own prescriptions for the incoming Congress including more investment in public works projects, immigration reform and new trade deals coupled with a strong social safety net.

SLAUGHTER: If they're going to frame their job in more traditional - I'm going to think about our party first - we're not going to get a lot of legislative progress on these important issues I don't think. But if new members are willing to take seriously the magnitude of concern that their constituents have about how the economy is doing, the steps that could be taken are there.

HORSLEY: In order to move those ideas forward though, Slaughter says candidates will have to show more imagination in Congress than they have so far on the campaign trail. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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