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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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Harleen Kaur: Building our future

By Harleen Kaur, Columnist
Published April 1, 2014

It’s 4 a.m. on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. I’m sitting in a tent just outside the Michigan Union, huddled in my North Face jacket and a sleeping bag. Any other Monday night — or Tuesday morning rather — I would be fast asleep in my bed. But tonight I wait for free tickets to see President Barack Obama for the second time in my three years on campus.

I was fairly uncertain about whether I wanted to wait in line tonight, as I saw Obama last time he came to campus and I wasn’t sure if I was mentally prepared to wait in line for 10-12 hours. It would be warmer this time versus the last, but a big commitment nonetheless. Obviously, I decided to come out, mostly because I knew that I would have the company of many friends who had decided to camp out. As I sit here in line, I am thankful for the fact that I attend a school that provides me with such wonderful opportunities, like the ability to see the current President not once, but twice during my college career.

However, I consider many other things as I wait here in line. One is that, a few hours ago, a friend came around asking for signatures for a petition to raise the minimum wage here in Michigan. Interestingly enough, people were fairly hesitant to sign, even though technically that is the reason we are all here. Also, the fact that when the topic of Obama’s speech was announced, many were surprised due to the sentiment that “minimum wage isn’t a relevant topic for University of Michigan students,” is a narrative I would like to challenge.

Tomorrow, we will hear Obama talk about why he wants to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10, nearly a $3 difference from Michigan’s current $7.40 minimum wage. Though there may be a large portion of the student body that doesn’t feel affected by this, there is still a considerable group of people, even within the city of Ann Arbor, who would benefit. Living off of $7.40 an hour, $296 for a 40-hour week, or $1,184 a month, would barely cover food and rent for most University students.

Looking at the broader population, Ann Arbor is certainly impacted by the minimum wage. According to The Ann Arbor News, “The number of chronically homeless individuals in Washtenaw County has doubled over the past two years.” There are several thriving programs in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to assist these individuals in finding their way back into the work force and with temporary housing, but it’s still a problem that will exist for some time until larger structural changes occur. An increase in the minimum wage is one of them.

One concern with a national raise in the minimum wage is that costs would simply adjust — a trend that has certainly occurred in Ann Arbor as housing rates have continued to rise over the years. This is why changing the environment in Ann Arbor to be more accepting toward students and residents of lower socioeconomic statuses requires a larger institutional change within University Housing, local realtors and high-rises. Making these changes will certainly take time, but with a raise in the minimum wage and an adjustment of housing prices, Ann Arbor can become a diverse city that is welcoming and accessible toward students and residents from a variety of social classes.

When Obama speaks on Wednesday, I hope to not only hear him make his argument for raising the minimum wage, but also why and how it’s relevant to students at Michigan. These policy issues that may not seem relevant to each and every student are important to discuss because it ties us to larger issues that influence our community and the nation as a whole. Understanding and engaging in conversations about topics like the national minimum wage will allow us to realize the significance of educating ourselves on policy issues, strengthening our voices and allowing ourselves to be heard. Our voices and actions will build the next generation of policies and institutions, so the earlier we start our involvement, the better.

Harleen Kaur can be reached at harleen@umich.edu.