Obama's Ann Arbor speech highlights challenges for young Americans, divisions among parties
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Matt Roughton is worried about how his children will be able to pay for college.Roughton, 52, was among dozens who gathered along East Hoover Avenue in Ann Arbor on Wednesday to watch President Barack Obama and his motorcade drive by before and after his speech at the University of Michigan’s Intramural Building.
With tuition rates continuing to skyrocket nationwide, and fewer jobs available to pay for it, the Ann Arbor resident and father of two is worried about how he will be able to get them through college.
“College is important, but it’s concerning that college is becoming so expensive,” he said. “We’re asking kids now to work through college and graduate in four or five years, but that’s impossible when there are so few jobs.”
Obama was in Ann Arbor to push for an increase in the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 status to $10.10 per hour. His speech was geared toward people like Roughton’s daughters, who are concerned about their futures as student loan debt rises and well-paying jobs struggle to come back.
He spent much of the speech criticizing congressional Republicans for failing to get behind a minimum wage increase, pointing to polls that indicate as much as 75 percent of Americans support an increase.
"(A wage increase) would lift millions of people out of poverty right away," Obama said. "You would think this would be a no-brainer, politically."
The president, speaking to a crowd of hundreds of mostly students, criticized Republicans for dismissing a wage increase as a benefit only for younger people.
"We should be making it easier for your generation to grab a foothold on the ladder of opportunity," Obama said.
GOP fights back
Many Republicans and conservative groups have called a minimum wage increase dangerous for a still-fragile economy.
Michigan Chamber of Commerce Director of Health Policy and Human Resources, Wendy Block, said similar increases being pushed for by Democrats in the state legislature would place an unfair burden on many businesses.
"Our members don't need the government to tell them to pay their workers a good wage," Block said, adding that businesses already pay their workers as much as they can because that is the best way to stay competitive.
She said a nearly 40-percent mark-up in the minimum wage could "strangle economic growth in the state" as it recovers from the Great Recession, which Michigan received the brunt of.
"Many members are still struggling with the costs of government-mandated health care, otherwise known as Obamacare," Block said, referencing the Affordable Care Act. "They don't need another government mandate."
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report in February that painted a mixed picture on a $10.10 minimum wage. It estimated it would lift about 900,000 Americans out of poverty, but it would also cost the economy an estimated 500,000 jobs.
While warning a minimum wage increase would not solve all the country’s economic problems, Obama said upping the minimum wage would help to create “opportunity for all.”
"Nobody who works full-time should be raising their family in poverty," Obama said to loud applause. "That's what's happening right now all across the country."
Earlier this year, the president signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.
"If you cook our troops' meals, our country should pay you a living wage," Obama said.
The prospects of a federal minimum wage increase are up in the air, however, it stands a slim chance of passing the Republican-controlled House.
In the Democratic Senate, moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is attempting to win over several Democrats on a compromise measure that increases the minimum wage by a smaller degree.
Still, Obama urged Americans – especially younger people – to call their representatives and ask them to raise the minimum wage, and he called on businesses to raise their wages on their own.
"Fair wages and higher profits aren't mutually exclusive. They can go hand-in-hand. That's what Henry Ford understood," Obama said, referencing the automotive pioneer who paid his employees a then-unheard-of $5 per hour.
Obama took time to highlight other actions he has taken over the past five years that have impacted students, pointing to the student loan reform law he signed in 2009, which cut banks out of the federal loan process and capped many loan payments at 10 percent of a person's income.
He also attacked congressional Republicans for the budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., that was unveiled Monday.
Obama said it would drastically cut funds for educational programs, while providing tax relief for the top income brackets.
"They do, to their credit, have one original idea, and that is to repeal Obamacare," he said sarcastically. "Because they haven't tried that 50 times."
Obama highlighted his signature legislative accomplishment as a way his administration has worked to create "opportunity for all" by creating access to quality health care.
It was announced yesterday that more than 7 million Americans signed up for health insurance through the law's exchanges, meeting expectations following a brutal rollout.
"We believe opportunity isn't just for the few," he said. "We believe everyone should have a chance"