President Barack Obama gave this speech at a Center for American Progress event on December 4, 2013. He discussed inequality in the United States and his administration's agenda on economic growth.
"To begin with, we have to continue to relentlessly push a growth agenda. It may be true that in today's economy, growth alone does not guarantee higher wages and incomes. We've seen that. But what's also true is we can't tackle inequality if the economic pie is shrinking or stagnant. The fact is if you're a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you've still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private sector investment.
And that's why from day one we've worked to get the economy growing and help our businesses hire. And thanks to their resilience and innovation, they've created nearly 8 million new jobs over the past 44 months. And now we've got to grow the economy even faster. And we've got to keep working to make America a magnet for good, middle-class jobs to replace the ones that we've lost in recent decades -- jobs in manufacturing and energy and infrastructure and technology.
And that means simplifying our corporate tax code in a way that closes wasteful loopholes and ends incentives to ship jobs overseas. (Applause.) And by broadening the base, we can actually lower rates to encourage more companies to hire here and use some of the money we save to create good jobs rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our airports, and all the infrastructure our businesses need.
It means a trade agenda that grows exports and works for the middle class. It means streamlining regulations that are outdated or unnecessary or too costly. And it means coming together around a responsible budget -- one that grows our economy faster right now and shrinks our long-term deficits, one that unwinds the harmful sequester cuts that haven't made a lot of sense -- (applause) -- and then frees up resources to invest in things like the scientific research that's always unleashed new innovation and new industries.
When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago. A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit. (Applause.)
So that's step one towards restoring mobility: making sure our economy is growing faster. Step two is making sure we empower more Americans with the skills and education they need to compete in a highly competitive global economy.
We know that education is the most important predictor of income today, so we launched a Race to the Top in our schools. We're supporting states that have raised standards for teaching and learning. We're pushing for redesigned high schools that graduate more kids with the technical training and apprenticeships, and in-demand, high-tech skills that can lead directly to a good job and a middle-class life.
We know it's harder to find a job today without some higher education, so we've helped more students go to college with grants and loans that go farther than before. We've made it more practical to repay those loans. And today, more students are graduating from college than ever before. We're also pursuing an aggressive strategy to promote innovation that reins in tuition costs. We've got lower costs so that young people are not burdened by enormous debt when they make the right decision to get higher education. And next week, Michelle and I will bring together college presidents and non-profits to lead a campaign to help more low-income students attend and succeed in college. (Applause.)
But while higher education may be the surest path to the middle class, it's not the only one. So we should offer our people the best technical education in the world. That's why we've worked to connect local businesses with community colleges, so that workers young and old can earn the new skills that earn them more money.
And I've also embraced an idea that I know all of you at the Center for American Progress have championed -- and, by the way, Republican governors in a couple of states have championed -- and that's making high-quality preschool available to every child in America. (Applause.) We know that kids in these programs grow up likelier to get more education, earn higher wages, form more stable families of their own. It starts a virtuous cycle, not a vicious one. And we should invest in that. We should give all of our children that chance.
And as we empower our young people for future success, the third part of this middle-class economics is empowering our workers. It's time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they're supposed to -- (applause) -- so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class. It's time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so that women will have more tools to fight pay discrimination. (Applause.) It's time to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so workers can't be fired for who they are or who they love. (Applause.)
And even though we're bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, we're creating more good-paying jobs in education and health care and business services; we know that we're going to have a greater and greater portion of our people in the service sector. And we know that there are airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty. (Applause.) And that's why it's well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office. (Applause.)
This shouldn't be an ideological question. It was Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics, who once said, "They who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged." And for those of you who don't speak old-English -- (laughter) -- let me translate. It means if you work hard, you should make a decent living. (Applause.) If you work hard, you should be able to support a family.
Now, we all know the arguments that have been used against a higher minimum wage. Some say it actually hurts low-wage workers -- businesses will be less likely to hire them. But there's no solid evidence that a higher minimum wage costs jobs, and research shows it raises incomes for low-wage workers and boosts short-term economic growth. (Applause.)
Others argue that if we raise the minimum wage, companies will just pass those costs on to consumers. But a growing chorus of businesses, small and large, argue differently. And already, there are extraordinary companies in America that provide decent wages, salaries, and benefits, and training for their workers, and deliver a great product to consumers.
SAS in North Carolina offers childcare and sick leave. REI, a company my Secretary of the Interior used to run, offers retirement plans and strives to cultivate a good work balance. There are companies out there that do right by their workers. They recognize that paying a decent wage actually helps their bottom line, reduces turnover. It means workers have more money to spend, to save, maybe eventually start a business of their own.
A broad majority of Americans agree we should raise the minimum wage. That's why, last month, voters in New Jersey decided to become the 20th state to raise theirs even higher. That's why, yesterday, the D.C. Council voted to do it, too. I agree with those voters. (Applause.) I agree with those voters, and I'm going to keep pushing until we get a higher minimum wage for hard-working Americans across the entire country. It will be good for our economy. It will be good for our families. (Applause.)
Number four, as I alluded to earlier, we still need targeted programs for the communities and workers that have been hit hardest by economic change and the Great Recession. These communities are no longer limited to the inner city. They're found in neighborhoods hammered by the housing crisis, manufacturing towns hit hard by years of plants packing up, landlocked rural areas where young folks oftentimes feel like they've got to leave just to find a job. There are communities that just aren't generating enough jobs anymore.
So we've put forward new plans to help these communities and their residents, because we've watched cities like Pittsburgh or my hometown of Chicago revamp themselves. And if we give more cities the tools to do it -- not handouts, but a hand up -- cities like Detroit can do it, too. So in a few weeks, we'll announce the first of these Promise Zones, urban and rural communities where we're going to support local efforts focused on a national goal -- and that is a child's course in life should not be determined by the zip code he's born in, but by the strength of his work ethic and the scope of his dreams. (Applause.)
And we're also going to have to do more for the long-term unemployed. For people who have been out of work for more than six months, often through no fault of their own, life is a catch-22. Companies won't give their résumé an honest look because they've been laid off so long -- but they've been laid off so long because companies won't give their résumé an honest look. (Laughter.) And that's why earlier this year, I challenged CEOs from some of America's best companies to give these Americans a fair shot. And next month, many of them will join us at the White House for an announcement about this.
Fifth, we've got to revamp retirement to protect Americans in their golden years, to make sure another housing collapse doesn't steal the savings in their homes. We've also got to strengthen our safety net for a new age, so it doesn't just protect people who hit a run of bad luck from falling into poverty, but also propels them back out of poverty.
Today, nearly half of full-time workers and 80 percent of part-time workers don't have a pension or retirement account at their job. About half of all households don't have any retirement savings. So we're going to have to do more to encourage private savings and shore up the promise of Social Security for future generations. And remember, these are promises we make to one another. We don't do it to replace the free market, but we do it to reduce risk in our society by giving people the ability to take a chance and catch them if they fall. One study shows that more than half of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lives. Think about that. This is not an isolated situation. More than half of Americans at some point in their lives will experience poverty.
That's why we have nutrition assistance or the program known as SNAP, because it makes a difference for a mother who's working, but is just having a hard time putting food on the table for her kids. That's why we have unemployment insurance, because it makes a difference for a father who lost his job and is out there looking for a new one that he can keep a roof over his kids' heads. By the way, Christmastime is no time for Congress to tell more than 1 million of these Americans that they have lost their unemployment insurance, which is what will happen if Congress does not act before they leave on their holiday vacation. (Applause.)
The point is these programs are not typically hammocks for people to just lie back and relax. These programs are almost always temporary means for hardworking people to stay afloat while they try to find a new job or go into school to retrain themselves for the jobs that are out there, or sometimes just to cope with a bout of bad luck. Progressives should be open to reforms that actually strengthen these programs and make them more responsive to a 21st century economy. For example, we should be willing to look at fresh ideas to revamp unemployment and disability programs to encourage faster and higher rates of re-employment without cutting benefits. We shouldn't weaken fundamental protections built over generations, because given the constant churn in today's economy and the disabilities that many of our friends and neighbors live with, they're needed more than ever. We should strengthen them and adapt them to new circumstances so they work even better."