Economic inequality is America's 'defining challenge': Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the economy in Washington Dec, 4, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the economy in Washington Dec, 4, 2013.

Calling economic inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” President Obama renewed his call to raise the federal minimum wage on Wednesday.

“It would be good for our economy. It would be good for our families,” Obama said, speaking in Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood, one of the poorest areas of the nation’s capital.

The federal minimum wage currently stands at $7.25 an hour, which comes out to about $15,000 per year. The White House has signaled the president will support a Senate initiative to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

“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," Obama added. "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.”

The president's speech, sponsored by the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, comes as 11.5 million Americans can’t find a job, and while corporate profits soar and the stock market reaches all-time highs. Some low-paid workers are choosing to take a stand on inequality. Protesters rallied outside of big-box stores like Walmart on Black Friday, calling attention to low pay and inadequate hours. And fast-food employees are planning to strike in 100 American cities this week.

“The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe," Obama said.

Several "myths" surrounding income inequality have stood in the way of progress, Obama argued. He pushed back on the notion that income inequality only affects a small share of predominantly minority poor Americans and said there was “no solid evidence” that raising the minimum wage would make businesses less likely to hire more workers.

In addition to calling for a higher minimum wage, the president pushed for simplifying corporate tax codes, strengthening labor laws and safety net programs and making high-quality preschool available to every child in America.

The president also took a dig at Republicans, insisting they should lay out their own plans to address big issues like health care reform and worker wages if they are unhappy with his agenda.

“You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for," Obama said, “not just what you’re against.”