By NATALIE WRIGHT
and MARIA RIGOU
and JON PRICE
Since his campaign days, President Barack Obama has spoken to young people. And since he introduced the Affordable Care Act, he’s been continuing to call on young people for their support non-stop.
Now, after the Affordable Care Act deadline is past, and its goal was met, Obama has made it clear that he is still prioritizing the youngest generation of voters.
During his visit to the University of Michigan last week, Obama addressed an audience of more than a thousand U-M students and other special guests, speaking to them with an air of cool approachability. But before addressing wide-ranging issues from minimum wage, partisan politics, immigration reform, and student loans to economic and social inequalities, Obama spoke to the students about his failed “March Madness” bracket – and his lunch at Zingerman’s Deli.
The students seemed to appreciate his candor, laughing at all the right moments.
“In the middle of it, someone next to me called him a sweetheart,” Chandler Billes, a 22-year-old U-M film student in attendance, said. “It was such a perfect way to put it. He was so candid and casual.”
Alison Lum, a U-M history student agreed.
“He knew what to say” to this crowd, Lum, 22, said, acknowledging that his talk was not only geared toward the audience as college students, but as Ann Arborites.
Why Ann Arbor?
In 2012, Obama became the first sitting president to visit U-M’s campus twice, after first speaking at 2010’s graduation commencement ceremony. Last week’s event marked his third visit to the campus and U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said that the school is very proud of its relationship with Obama.
“I think we hold the record for any sitting president going to any school. So he must really like it here,” she said. “I know our students are really excited, and I love that.
“And we have lots of Michigan grads in the White House,” she added.
U-M business student Jarred Bassett said that, though he understands that Obama comes to Ann Arbor because it is “one of the most educated cities in the United States,” the venue didn’t make sense considering the topic of the speech.
“I think it is interesting that he comes here, to a college town,” Bassett, 21, said, “where none of the students and very few people here really ever have to worry about living on minimum wage.”
But Sarah Blume, a 19-year-old U-M international studies and film student, said she understands why he chose the city and the university.
“I think we have a very vibrant academic community,” Blume said. “I think that students here are responsive, and also, I think the surrounding area itself is very socioeconomically diverse.”
Obama has frequented Ann Arbor enough times that he knows “the right thing to do when you’re in Ann Arbor” is to stop by local favorite, Zingerman’s, he said.
He said he picked the deli for two reasons.
“The first is, the Reuben is killer,” he said (laughs from the audience). “The second reason, though, is Zingerman’s is a business that treats its workers well and rewards honest work with honest wages.
“And that’s worth celebrating.”
Zingerman’s owner Paul Saginaw is known for lobbying in Washington D.C. for federal minimum wage increases.
“Paul’s message is simple,” Obama said. “Higher wages and higher profits are not mutually exclusive.
“I decided several months ago that the federal government should follow their lead.”
Raising the minimum wage
In January, President Obama announced in his State of the Union address that raising the minimum wage would become a major priority for his administration. Soon after, he signed an executive order requiring that all federal contractors must pay a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour.
Since, he said, four states have raised their minimum wages.
“It would lift millions out of poverty,” Obama said. “It wouldn’t require any new taxes. It doesn’t require new spending. It doesn’t require new bureaucracy.”
And it would give a major boost to the economy, he said.
“So you would think this would be a no-brainer.”
But for many it’s not.
Alex Wernert, a 22-year-old U-M economics student, said that it’s wrong to assume there would be no downside to the increase.
“It would have positive and negative implications,” Wernert said. “Going back to Econ 101, you know if you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to increase unemployment, naturally.”
But most in attendance agreed with the presidents’ statements, some saying that their only concern is that the plan is too timid.
“Raising the minimum wage is a painless way of giving people more money, but $10.10 is a little low,” Patrick Balke, a 20-year-old economics student at U-M, said.
Louisa Kane, a U-M neuroscience and Arabic student, agreed that $10.10 is not a large enough raise, but it’s “a good start,” she said.
“There’s gonna be a lot of backlash if you go higher than that, I think,” Kane, 19, said. “As a politician, he just needs to get his foot in the door first.”
The biggest argument in favor of the increase from the president and other politicians and U-M students who attended, was that the minimum wage simply isn’t proportional to the cost of living.
“Raising the minimum wage isn’t going to solve all of our economic challenges,” Obama said. “But nobody who works full-time should be raising their family in poverty.”
“I think that is something that everyone can pretty much put their arms around,” State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said. “That’s why I think the minimum wage campaign will be successful.”
Nine months ago, Irwin and State Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) introduced state House Bill 4386, which, if passed, would raise the state minimum wage from $7.40 an hour to $9 an hour.
Public support for this raise is “overwhelmingly high” Zemke said.
“I think it’s kind of dismal that you have certain employers who are building into their business models that their employees will be on food stamps,” Zemke said. “It means that they’re supplementing their profit using our tax dollars.
“It’s wrong from a fiscal standpoint. It’s wrong from a moral standpoint.”
Obama needs Congress to act
Raising wages, Obama said, is not just a decision for those in the political arena, but also for employers, like Saginaw. But putting the raise into law is the ultimate goal, he said.
For that, Congress needs to get involved.
“What Zingerman’s can do on its own, what I can do as the head of the executive branch of the federal government, that doesn’t help everybody.”
But the Republicans in Congress are nowhere near getting on board, and Obama was not hesitant to boldly criticize them for it.
“They’re not necessarily cold-hearted,” Obama said. “They just sincerely believe that if we give more tax breaks to a fortunate few and we invest less in the middle class… then somehow the economy will boom, and jobs and prosperity will trickle down to everybody.”
Next week, he said, Congress will have an opportunity to vote on raising the federal minimum wage, and though the Michigan congressmen all support the cause, he encouraged out-of-state students to call the representatives of their home states and encourage them to vote “yes” too.
Equality for all
While Obama came to Ann Arbor with the stated mission of discuss raising the minimum wage, he made it clear in his speech that this proposal was only a small part of addressing the bigger issue of inequality in the country. He touched not only on income inequality, but also social inequalities.
“We want to make sure that no matter where you’re born, what circumstances, how you started out, what you look like, what your last name is, who you love – it doesn’t matter, you can succeed,” he said.
“What matters is the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams and our willingness to take responsibility for ourselves.”
He spoke very directly to college students, saying that equality of opportunity should not be something to be nostalgic about, but something that the country, and they, as a generation, must push forward to.
How a minimum raise increase affect Michigan
By MARIA RIGOU
An estimated 3.8 million workers 16 years old or older represent the wage-earning workforce in Michigan for whom either a valid hourly wage is reported or one can be imputed from weekly earnings and average weekly hours.
Of those, 746,000 workers would be directly affected by the increase, seeing their wages rise, as the new minimum wage rate will exceed their hourly pay. Additionally, 271,000 workers will be indirectly affected and will see their wages increase as the employer pay scales are adjusted upward to reflect the new minimum wage, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute.
Michigan is one of the nine states that would see more than one million workers directly and indirectly affected by the minimum wage increase, and one of 10 states that would see a growth in more than $1 billion in GDP.