Remarks at the Capitol Hill Minimum Wage Press Conference, Washington, DC, January 15, 2014
[as prepared for delivery]
Good afternoon everyone. It's an honor to be here, on behalf of President Obama, to express the administration's strong support for legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
Leader Pelosi, thank you so much for inviting me to join you today and for your incredible record of advocacy for middle-class families. Thank you, Whip Hoyer, for your partnership over the years to do great things for our home state. Thank you, Anna and Semethia, for sharing your stories today.
Thank you, Congressman Miller, for your decades and decades of incomparable service, for being a vigorous, unrelenting champion of progressive values. The House will miss your leadership. Even more importantly, so will the working families you've fought for all these years.
And thanks to all of you for being here raising your voice in support of raising the wage.
Even though we won't recognize the holiday until Monday, it is today that is actually Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 85th birthday. And in championing this cause, we are carrying forward his legacy. In 1966, he said: "We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage..."
But it's not just civil rights visionaries who understand the imperative of wage growth. Exactly 100 years ago, no less a capitalist than Henry Ford took an unheard-of step he doubled the wages of the workers on his Dearborn, Michigan assembly line. Here's how he explained his decision:
"If we can distribute high wages, then that money is going to be spent and it will serve to make storekeepers and distributors and manufacturers and workers in other lines more prosperous and their prosperity will be reflected in our sales. Countrywide high wages spell countrywide prosperity."
Countrywide high wages spell countrywide prosperity. A century later, that is still true. And that is why 75 percent of Americans, as well as so many forward-looking business leaders I speak to, support an increase in the federal minimum wage.
Because it isn't just pro-worker; it's pro-business. It's not just the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do. It's not just a moral imperative or a question of social justice; it's also a pragmatic economic growth strategy. Because putting money in the pockets of working families, as Henry Ford explained, means they'll spend it on goods and services... which will help businesses thrive and create more jobs.
That's why there's a proud bipartisan history of raising the minimum wage. That's why Republican predecessors of mine like Elizabeth Dole have led the charge for previous minimum wage increases.
Minimum wage earners come from all backgrounds. But typically, she is a provider and breadwinner, responsible for paying bills, running a household, and raising children.
How can we expect her to get by on a wage that, in real terms, isn't worth as much as it was during the Truman Administration? The value of the minimum wage simply hasn't kept up with the cost of living, the price of all the essentials a family needs to survive a gallon of milk, a gallon of gas, a month's rent, a pair of children's shoes and more.
Why do we expect her to take home less while producing more? Since 1979, worker productivity has increased more than 90 percent but real average hourly earnings have gone up just 3.2 percent.
The minimum wage is now 75 years old. It became the law of the land with President Franklin Roosevelt's signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The night before he signed the bill, this is what FDR said about it in one of his storied fireside chats:
"Except perhaps for the Social Security Act, it is the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted here or in any other country. Without question it starts us toward a better standard of living and increases purchasing power to buy the products of farm and factory."
But to keep the promise of the FLSA... to make sure it remains far-reaching and far-sighted... to ensure continued higher living standards and purchasing power... Congress must act now. We must keep faith with the basic value proposition that no one who works full-time in the wealthiest nation in the world should live in poverty. We can't do that until we raise the minimum wage.
President Obama believes addressing persistent income inequality is some of America's most urgent unfinished business and a continuation of Dr. King's work. If we are going to be a country that provides ladders of opportunity... that believes in a thriving middle class... that delivers on the promise that no matter who you are, you can make it if you try... then we have to raise the minimum wage.
But don't take my word for it. In a minute, you'll hear from Anna and Semethia, two Americans who know what it's like to live at or near the minimum wage. In recent weeks, I've had the privilege of meeting with many workers just like them proud men and women who want nothing more than a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. I've looked into their eyes and seen their struggle and their sacrifice; their dignity and self-respect.
Anna, Semethia and millions of Americans like them are honest, hard-working and selfless. They wake up every morning and do their jobs. Now, it's time for Congress to do its job. It's time to give minimum wage workers the raise they need, the raise they've earned, the raise they deserve.
And now, I'm proud to introduce a proud fellow Marylander, my friend and a friend to working families nationwide: Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer...