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The rich-poor gap: If Brazil can address it, US can and should

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Brazil's President Luiz Inácio da Silva - "Lula," as he is widely known - has made Brazil's gaping gulf between its few rich and many poor a focus of his new administration.

The United States should do the same. While not as vast as Brazil's, the gap between the rich and the poor in the US is too wide - the widest among all the rich democracies.

According to World Bank data, the poorest 10 percent of Brazil's population receives just 1 percent of the country's total income, while the richest 10 percent receives almost half. In the US, the poorest 10 percent receives 1.8 percent of total income, while the richest 10 percent gets almost a third.

In no other rich democracy does the poorest 10 percent receive less than 2 percent of the total. (The average for rich countries is 2.9 percent.)

Don't leap to the conclusion that this extreme inequity in US income distribution reflects the policies of the Bush administration. The data are for a Clinton boom year - 1997.

In fact, Census Bureau data show a steady erosion of income inequity since the 1970s.

The Census Bureau estimates that in 2001, about 33 million Americans - 11.7 percent of the population and disproportionately African-American and Hispanic - lived below the poverty line. For a family of four, that meant an income of less than $18,000 per year, or $4,500 per capita.

At this level of affluence, the persistence of poverty for tens of millions of Americans is a national disgrace.

A national consensus is needed aimed at ending poverty, consistent with the vision of the late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls. For Rawls, the good society was the society in which a principal goal was the well-being of those worst off.

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