Of all the issues likely to be raised during this political season, the minimum wage is bound to be the most abused. The 51 Republicans and two Democrats who voted down a $1 per hour increase in the Senate last week are sure to be painted as cruel and elitist by their rivals.

When that charge is raised, the correct response is, "Cruel to whom?" Were these senators cruel to the 215,000 people who lost their jobs last time the minimum raise rose by only 90 cents? That was the estimated toll as measured by the Employment Policies Institute.The minimum wage issue comes down to simple mathematics - third-grade stuff, really. Business owners determine the price of a product by accounting for costs and the need for a reasonable profit. If the government forces them to pay employees more, costs will rise. The business owner must either reduce the number of employees or increase the price of the product. Anyone who believes a business can raise salaries without affecting the bottom line ought to go live in Disneyland - they would feel right at home in a fantasy world.

Ah, the minimum-wage fans say, but the unemployment rate actually has dropped a bit since the last wage increase. Yes, and the Cubs may qualify for the playoffs this season. The two have about as much in common as they do to the minimum wage.

The fact is the overwhelming majority of Americans already earn far more than the current $5.15 minimum. Miraculously, this happened all by itself, without any help from the government. But break the unemployment figures down a bit and the picture becomes clearer. The Hudson Institute studied the last minimum wage increase and found that unemployment among the three most vulnerable groups - blacks, teenagers and single mothers - rose from 8.5 percent to 9.1 percent. So much for benevolence.

If workers cost more, employers can't afford as many of them. It's that simple. The only alternative is inflation, and that hurts everyone.

Who is cruel? That's easy. It's the group that insists on defying simple mathematics and reducing opportunities for the people who need them most.