University News

Perez ’83 talks minimum wage, equal opportunity

Secretary of Labor says Brown exposed him to new perspectives, encouraged risk-taking

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2014

“I didn’t have any idea that I was going to become the Secretary of Labor someday, … but what I did have an idea of was that I wanted to make a difference,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez ’83 in his keynote address, part of Saturday morning’s opening celebration of Brown’s 250th anniversary.

Alums, administrators, community members and students packed Salomon 101 for the conversation with Perez, moderated by Richard Locke, director of the Watson Institute for International Studies and professor of political science.

In President Christina Paxson’s introductory remarks, she highlighted Perez’s accomplishments and merits. “One thing that’s very clear is that Brown is about equity, human dignity, social justice — principles that have formed the life of today’s speaker,” she said.

Perez spoke of his upbringing and Brown’s impact on his career and perspective before pivoting to a policy discussion on issues including the minimum wage, income equality and training the next generation of workers.

At Brown, Perez was exposed to a wide range of backgrounds and worldviews that helped inform his own outlook, he said.

“Brown taught me how to embrace diversity and how to expand my comfort zone, and it really gave me the moral and ethical and intellectual foundation for so much of what I did,” Perez said, adding that he entered public service in hopes of finding a means to help people. Throughout his career, he has focused on issues of “extending opportunity,” he said.

The theme of extending opportunity echoed throughout most of Perez’s address.

He devoted a significant amount of time — both in his discussion with Locke and in responses to audience questions — to the importance of raising the minimum wage.

“Nobody in this country who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty,” he said.

Investing in human capital by legislating a living wage and safe working conditions is instrumental for economic growth, Perez said. Higher wages lead to increased consumer spending, allow people to spend more time with their families and boost worker retention rates, contributing both to personal financial stability and national economic growth, he added.

The minimum wage can be a divisive issue in Washington, Perez said, due to a false impression about the adverse economic impacts associated with government interference. Many businesses already pay their employees a salary above the minimum wage and are better off for doing so, he said.

“We need to look beyond the economic theory and to the reality of what is happening,” he added.

Throughout his remarks, Perez returned to this idea of debunking the “false choices” pervading the dialogue surrounding labor policy. Often, politicians portray two policy goals as conflicting when they are actually compatible, Perez said. For example, policymakers do not have to choose between raising the minimum wage and decreasing unemployment, just as business owners can support both their employees and their shareholders, he said.

Perez also spoke about income inequality and the importance of economic mobility and fairness.

Investment in early childhood education and infrastructure, mandatory provision of paid leave and assurances of adequate workplace safety standards could stem rising income inequality, he said.

Perez also addressed the intersection of labor policy and education, highlighting the importance of training students for jobs that will be available in the future.

Many jobs will be “middle-skill,” requiring technical training but not a four-year degree, he said.

Preparing Americans for the right jobs necessitates “a dramatic reengineering of how we deliver education,” he said, adding that partnerships with corporate and nonprofit entities can help direct the focus of education.

Perez briefly touched upon how political partisanship can obstruct his goals as secretary of labor. “The formula for economic growth is not rocket science,” he said, but a divided Congress can hinder its ability to make meaningful change even when public opinion supports initiatives like increasing the minimum wage.

Reflecting on his career, Perez said his path to the cabinet “started with luck… It continues with great family support, mentors in the community here at Brown, a lot of shoe leather and some more luck.”