A Look at the President's Proposals to Increase the Minimum Wage and Universal Pre-K

PHOTO: Barack Obama
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The president's call on Tuesday night to increase the minimum wage and expand universal pre-kindergarten for all children were progressive proposals that made Democrats rejoice. But can they pass in a time of extreme partisanship? And how?

The most dramatic moment of the State of the Union speech was the president's passionate plea to Congress that victims of gun violence "deserve a vote."

As his voice rose in a crescendo and the survivors stood, he demanded Congress give them an up-or-down vote on gun control measures.

"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," Obama said, the crowd rising with thunderous applause at the mention of her name. "The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -- they deserve a simple vote."

That tactic, says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, is how the president will force votes on not only his gun control proposals but others -- increasing the minimum wage and universal pre-kindergarten.

"What the president did last night that was brilliant," Green said. "My guess is he will barnstorm around the country making an emotionally persuasive case …. If he is successful on the gun fight, he can get Republicans to cave on other important policy fights."

"The precedent is set," Green explained. "If there is a scheduled vote that allows Democrats and Republicans to join forces [on gun control] then why not other issues? Why not give it a fair vote? It won't be a wonky issue, it will be an idea that we just had a national conversation about."

But, what is the controversy over issues that seem so palatable like universal preschool for four year olds and increasing the minimum wage? For opponents it's just spending more money the country doesn't have, and that means it will be difficult to get a vote called for either proposal -- never mind the votes to get it passed.

Increasing the Minimum Wage

On Wednesday, the president hit the road in support of increasing the minimum wage, but House Speaker John Boehner spoke out against it saying he's been dealing with the issue for 28 years and it just will stall employment.

"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it," Boehner said. "At a time when Americans are still asking the question, 'Where are the jobs?,' why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people? Listen, I've got 11 brothers and sisters on every rung of the economic ladder. I know about this issue as much as anybody in this town, and what happens when you take away the first couple of rungs on the economic ladder, you make it harder for people to get on the ladder. "

Specifically, the president called for an increase of the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.00 an hour by 2015. The last time it was raised, in 2009, it was increased from $6.55 to $7.25, which translates to $15,080 a year for a fulltime worker. It was the last step of a three part increase approved by Congress in 2007. Before 2007, the minimum wage remained at $5.15 per hour for 10 years. Currently there are campaigns in states around the country – including New York, Maryland, Connecticut and New Mexico -- to lobby at the state level for an increase in the state minimum wage.

Washington is the only state with a minimum wage of $9. Seven other states and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage of $8 or more. So for most states it would mean at least a $1 increase per hour for all workers at the lowest level of the pay scale.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union, said through spokesperson Alex Conant that he "supports having a minimum wage and recognizes that the proper rate will vary from state to state, but he doesn't think we should raise the federal one as the president proposed."

But proponents of the increase say that more money in the pockets of those who need it will boost the economy, not stall it.

Jack Temple, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project (which works to increase the minimum wage), says polling and research show the opposite of what Boehner said is true and "raising the minimum wage is a key part of the economic recovery. "

"You can't accelerate the economic recovery without making sure everyone on the wage scale advances," Temple said. "Raising the minimum wage immediately boosts the wages at the bottom of the wage scale and it's smart policy at this point in the recovery. It helps the lowest paid workers make ends meet, but most importantly it also boosts consumer spending...raising the minimum wage means more money in the pockets of workers."

Temple says this means "it will have a significant stimulus on the economy."

And Temple points out it's good politics too.

A Public Religion Research Institute survey from September 2011 showed 67 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour with indexing, including 52 percent of Republicans.

Despite divided government, Temple also thinks it can pass because of the history of the minimum wage. "In terms of legislative prospects, the last two minimum wage increases were under the Bush administration in 2007 and the time before that it was proposed by President Clinton and passed under a Republican controlled congress in 1996," Temple said. "Its prospects are good, not just on its merits, but what history shows of it passing with bipartisan support."

Universal Pre-Kindergarten

The president travels to an early childhood learning center Thursday in Decatur, Ga., to drum up support for pre-kindergarten education for all, but opponents say it's too expensive to make it a quality education for every four year old and most attend anyway. Proponents say it's absolutely critical.

The Center for American Progress proposed its own education proposal earlier this month, which included universal pre-kindergarten for three and four year olds. It's slightly different from what the president proposed, but a likely roadmap for legislation.

Melissa Lazarin, the education policy director for the Center for American Progress said it is the "single most important investment" that can be made in education reform and "every dollar we invest we get back." Low-income children, she said, have the most to gain.

She stressed, though, that this is just one piece of the puzzle of education reform and it needs to be a federal and state partnership (they would split the cost as well) and a "comprehensive approach" that needs to be "followed up by continued investment and reforms to K through 12. It's not just a tack-on and separate thing.".

Lazarin too thinks it can get bipartisan support in Congress because there is bipartisan support at the state level.

"We have governors, both Republicans and Democrats, who have already, independently before this proposal, talked about great investments in pre-K," Lazarin said. "I think there is support for this, bipartisan support and that will hopefully translate to action in Congress."

But, opponents say the evidence just doesn't support a big new investment with a large price tag.

Lisa Snell, the director of education policy at the Reason Foundation, a group that promotes libertarian principals, says, "If we spent $30,000 to $40,000 per child" it might be productive, but in reality the number is much lower, which Snell calls a "bait and switch."

"Most four-year-olds are (already) going to pre-school and we are not getting the outcomes when you look at graduation rates, test scores for 17-year-olds or SAT scores…. We have had this huge investment in Head Start, private funding of preschool, and state level funding and we just haven't see any kind of return," Snell said. "I just think it's the triumph of hope over experience. We are already invested a lot of money in pre-school and we haven't seen the kind of outcomes we make claims about."

And it's these voices that we will hear when the debate rages over legislation, but both may have to take a back seat to a debate over gun control legislation first.

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