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ANN ARBOR — With his minimum-wage proposal teed up for a vote soon in the Senate, President Obama pressed the case for economic fairness in a speech on Wednesday to an appreciative audience at the University of Michigan.
The President addressed some 1,400 students and invited guests inside the university’s intramural sports building, where he pitched his $10.10-per-hour minimum-wage plan to wild cheers and applause, despite his selection of rival Michigan State to win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“My bracket is a mess. I’ve learned my lesson — I will not pick against the Wolverines,” he said, owning up early on his mistake. MSU lost on Sunday but so did UM.
TRANSCRIPT: Full text of President Obama's speech at UM.
He said despite the signs of economic recovery, many in the middle class are not seeing income and wage growth, adding that a higher minimum wage would help lift wages for 28 million Americans, including 1 million people in Michigan.
“It would lift millions of people out of poverty right away,” he said.
“Next week, members of Congress have a fresh chance to show which side they’re on. And they’ve got to make a clear choice: Talk the talk about valuing hardworking families, or walk the walk and actually value hardworking families,” Mr. Obama said. “You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise.”
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He evoked memories of Henry Ford in the minimum-wage campaign because the 20th-century industrialist supported liberal pay and the 40-hour work week.
“Fair wages and higher profits are not mutually exclusive. That’s what Henry Ford understood,” Mr. Obama said. “Nobody who works full-time should be raising their family in poverty.”
The minimum wage is thought to primarily involve young people, the President said, but the average age of those receiving it is 35.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed the proposal and concluded that it would lift 900,000 workers out of poverty but cost 500,000 jobs.
The bill is expected to be debated soon in the Democratic-controlled Senate but faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, where Republicans are largely opposed.
Using a joking style that had the crowd laughing as well as applauding, he urged students to use their spring breaks to contact their elected representatives about the minimum wage. He then said, “Oh, did that happen already? Well, I hope you had a good time.”
Further warming up his listeners, he said, “We’ve got to make sure everybody’s ready with the skills they need; not everybody’s going to be lucky enough to be a Wolverine and graduate from Michigan.”
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With Mr. Obama was U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D., Bloomfield Hills, Mich.), the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate against likely Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land. Mr. Peters voiced support for the President’s proposal in January. Ms. Land has not stated a position.
Michigan’s unemployment rate in February was 7.7 percent, fifth worst in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
After arriving at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mr. Obama made an unannounced stop at Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor and bought a Reuben sandwich, then he spoke with three customers about their experiences earning the minimum wage.
Zingerman’s co-owner Paul Saginaw in January joined a business-group trip to Washington to lobby for the three-year phased-in minimum wage hike from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10.
One student at Mr. Obama’s speech said she’s in favor of raising the minimum wage, but she also agrees with critics that it could stifle employment.
“My opinion is if the minimum wage is raised, there would be less job opportunities,” said Dillon Stuart, 18, of Ann Arbor, a freshman business and Chinese major. She works as a lifeguard for about $8 an hour.
“I think it’s a good idea to raise it for the people that live on the edge,” said Ms. Stuart, who doesn’t see the wage increase as likely to affect her part-time job.
“I think they’re going to have a constant need for lifeguards at pools,” Ms. Stuart said. She attended the event because someone gave out tickets.
Political science major Alaina Berner, 19, of Arlington, Va., said the President geared his message to the college crowd.
“We’re all looking for internships and jobs after school,” Ms. Berner said. “I think it not only benefits those who are working those minimum-wage jobs but promotes more spending in general, and so the companies that are paying those minimum wages get more consumers who can afford to buy their products and services.”
The President touched on equal pay for women, the Affordable Care Act, the improving economy, the burden of student loans, and job training in his half-hour address.
“We just came through the first month since 2003 where no U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he added.
Mr. Obama recalled his message to students at the UM 2010 commencement. “I said, our democracy, it’s always been noisy, it’s always been messy. We have big arguments. But in the end, we’ve always had the ability to look past our differences and our disagreements and forge a common future.”
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