By Mike Lillis - 01/15/14 05:37 PM EST
Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House upped their pressure on Republicans Wednesday to increase the minimum wage.
The push is part of a broader election year campaign designed to highlight the stark differences between the parties when it comes to tackling income inequality and the wealth gap, both of which have grown significantly since the Great Recession.
"You can't build a rich economy on the backs of poor workers," Rep. George Miller (Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said during a pep rally for the wage hike in the Capitol. "You just can't do it."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) piled on, framing the wage hike as both "a moral issue" and an economic benefit.
"It's an issue of fairness as to who we are as a country," she said. "So we will be persistent, we will be dissatisfied [and] we will be relentless until we make this happen."
President Obama has come out in strong support of the Democrats' proposal, a position amplified Wednesday by Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. The bill would hike the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 nationwide.
"The dignity of work requires the dignity of a fair wage," Perez said. "Nobody who works a full-time job in this country should have to live in poverty."
Republicans and many conservative groups have hammered the proposed wage hike, along with other elements of the Democrats' agenda, as an attack on the economy that would increase unemployment by discouraging businesses from hiring the nation's least-skilled workers.
The conservative Employment Policies Institute this week is touting research warning the wage hike to $10.10 would destroy between 360,000 and 1 million entry-level jobs. The group took out a full-page ad in Wednesday's New York Times declaring that the Democrats' proposal would also do nothing to reduce poverty.
"The best weapon in the war on poverty is a job," the ad reads.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) last month went a step further, arguing that the minimum wage has "outlived its usefulness" and should be repealed altogether.
Democrats and other supporters of the higher rate have rejected those arguments, citing different studies indicating the wage hike would boost the economy by putting more money into the pockets of those most likely to spend it the quickest.
A recent analysis by the liberal Economic Policy Institute found a shift to the $10.10 rate would hike wages for roughly 28 million workers, increase GDP by $22 billion and create around 85,000 new jobs.
"Some people in this institution talk about disincentivizing work," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday. "Let me suggest that nothing will disincentivize going to work [more] than not paying a wage that people can live on."
The debate underscores the striking ideological differences between the parties when it comes to the federal government's role in addressing the nation's still-high unemployment rate, which stood at 6.7 percent last month.
Republican leaders argue the federal government has little role to play in the economic recovery, aside from getting out of the way of private enterprise. They're urging Congress to cut taxes, slash federal spending, repeal Obama's health coverage expansion and scale back regulations they say are strangling private-sector job creators.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took to the chamber floor Wednesday to bash Obama and Senate Democrats for focusing on unemployment benefits while ignoring a series of House-passed bills the Republicans say would boost hiring.
"Unfortunately, instead of helping to create jobs, the president is focused on making it easier to live without one," Boehner said.
Obama and the Democrats, meanwhile, endorse the notion that Washington should play an aggressive role in rebuilding the economy. They're promoting proposals to increase infrastructure spending, eliminate tax breaks for businesses that outsource labor and bolster the nation's safety net programs, including jobless benefits, food stamps and Medicaid.
The Democrats are framing the wage hike as a historic struggle that has its roots in Henry Ford's assembly lines in the early 1900s; gained federal support under FDR's New Deal program in the 1930s; was championed by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s; and found its most prominent modern voice in the figure of the late-Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"It has a long, proud tradition," Perez said.
The wage hike has little chance of passing in an election year, when Republicans control the House. Still, Democratic leaders are hoping their pressure campaign will prompt voters to force GOP leaders to reconsider.
"It can only happen if the American people demand it," Pelosi said.
The debate arrives as new evidence has emerged that the gap between the wealthy and the working classes has widened in recent years.
A report released this week by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality found that lower-class Americans suffered disproportionately from the housing bust, resulting in a wealth inequality "higher than any level recorded in nearly three decades."
On the income front, the study found that the top 1 percent of earners saw their taxable incomes grow 31 percent from 2009-2012, versus 0.4 percent for everyone else.
"It follows that the top one percent captured 95 percent of all income growth in the first three years of the recovery, as profits and equities rebounded strongly, but not wages," the researchers wrote.