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Obama touts wage hike, affordable savings plan

– Declaring that hard work should pay off for every American, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed an order to create starter retirement accounts that could be opened with as little as $25 but acknowledged there’s a limit to the help he can give low-wage workers without congressional action.

Obama followed up Tuesday night’s State of the Union address by traveling to two workplaces and to drive home the message from a pair of proposals aimed at boosting the personal finances of working class Americans.

Obama visited a Costco food warehouse in suburban Lanham, Md., where entry-level employees start at $11.50 an hour to tout his call for a $10.10 minimum wage. At a U.S. Steel Corp. plant outside Pittsburgh, he signed a presidential memorandum to create the “myRA” program, which he told employees would go toward “making sure that after a lifetime of hard work you can retire with some dignity.”

Obama was trying to tap into Americans’ frustrations with a Washington that has been gridlocked amid partisan debate and an economy that’s been slow to rebound from the recession. He accused Congress of wasting time when Americans need action. “I could do more with Congress, but I’m not going to not do anything without Congress, not when it’s about the basic security and dignity of American workers,” Obama said.

The president then sat a wooden desk set up in the cavernous factory and signed the memorandum, then took it offstage and handed it to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, with a pat on the shoulder. Lew’s initial task is to set up a pilot program with accounts available through some employers by the end of the year.

The program will operate like a Roth IRA, so contributions as little as $5 per paycheck would be made with after-tax dollars. That means account-holders could withdraw the funds at any time without paying additional taxes.

The funds would be backed by U.S. government debt, similar to a savings option available to federal employees, and investors could keep the accounts if they switch jobs or convert them into private accounts.

“We think this fills a space that, very importantly, we can do by our own authority,” Lew told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Pennsylvania. The idea is to encourage some of the millions of Americans who do not save for retirement to begin putting aside even small amounts of money. “When people start saving they get into the habit of saving,” he said.

Another step Obama is making without Congress is to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts to $10.10 an hour. But he needs lawmakers to pass legislation to give all workers the same, up from the $7.25 current minimum wage.

“If you work hard, you should be able to pay your rent, buy your groceries, look after your kids,” Obama said at Costco, close to the produce section where consumers could buy large containers of green seedless grapes and plantains. He joked that he could use a 50-pound bag of dog food for pets Sunny and Bo and that he’d like an 80-inch flat-screen TV for the Super Bowl.

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