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Yawning rich-poor gap could hobble economy

Column: Income equality may lead to protectionism and slow down trade, among other things.

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Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has been trying to put poverty reduction back on the national agenda. During an 11-city tour, Mr. Edwards spelled out his goal to eradicate poverty by 2036. He would do this not merely through economic growth, but with direct measures, such as healthcare for all, the creation of 1 million one-year transition jobs, housing vouchers, and eliminating tax benefits for the rich.

His lamentations over the poor have been echoed by the two leading Democratic contenders: Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Their efforts, accompanied by greater public awareness of the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States, may even result in congressional action.

"We could even take some baby steps in the next couple of years" – that is, before President Bush leaves the White House, suggests Jared Bernstein, an economist at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

If Democrats win the White House in 2008 and retain Congress, laws to deal with poverty and income inequality could multiply. "I'm hopeful that in 2008 we will see some changes," says Heather Boushey, an income expert at the Center for Eco­­nomic Policy and Research in Wash­­­ington.

She's troubled by the fact that the productivity of American business has been increasing steadily, but little of that new wealth and income reaches the poor – or even the middle class. The richest 0.01 percent has grabbed most of the gains, enjoying a 250 percent increase in income between 1973 and 2005. The entire economy grew by 160 percent during that period.

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