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Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2000 /20 Shevat, 5760

Joseph Perkins

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Linking marriage and the income gap -- THE FIRST TIME I heard Bill Clinton, live and uncut, was in May 1992 at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner hosted by Democrats in San Diego.

The Arkansas governor blamed Republican economic policies of the preceding 12 years for creating the biggest gap between rich and poor Americans in more than half a century.

"What the Republicans said was, `Give us more inequality, and we'll give you more growth,'" Clinton sneered. "It turned out to be a fraud."

So, here we are, eight years later, and Clinton is completing the final year of his presidency. And guess what? A new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute says that the gap between rich and poor was "significantly greater in the late 1990s than... during the 1980s."

Well, that's quite shocking. After all, Clinton has persistently claimed to have presided over "the best economy in 30 years." And he trots out numbers to back his claim.

Come next month, the current economic expansion will be the longest of the post-war (that's World War II for you Gen X and younger readers) era. During this unprecedented expansion, the economy has generated more than 20 million new jobs and $2 trillion in additional economic output.

Yet, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, during the age of Clinton, the rich have gotten richer, while the poor have remained in place.

"The report shows that, with few exceptions, economic growth in the 50 states has not been broadly shared," said Jared Bernstein, one the report's co-authors.

"The strong economic growth in the U.S. results from the contributions of people in all walks of life, from laborers to corporate executives," he continued. "The fact that many families are not sharing in the resulting prosperity stands as our nation's most serious economic problem."

It's kind of interesting that Bernstein offered no criticism of Clinton's economic policies for the growing income disparity between the nation's most and least affluent.

For during the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and George Bush were in the White House, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute -- both left-of-center public policy organizations -- laid the blame for income inequality squarely at the feet of the two Republicans.

But Reagan and Bush deserved no more blame for income inequality during the 1980s than Clinton does for the widening gap between rich and poor during the 1990s. For this trend actually started some 30 years ago.

It has little to do with tax policy -- whether a president raises or cuts taxes. It has little to do with welfare policy -- whether a president increases or decreases spending on anti-poverty programs.

The reality is that the single biggest determinant of a family's upward (or downward) mobility is whether the family is headed by a married couple. Indeed, one of every three poor families in America is headed by an unmarried parent. Conversely, only one out of 20 married-couple families are poor.

It happens that the ranks of one-parent families have dramatically increased over the past three decades. And with two-parent families earning nearly three times the income of one-parent families, it is little wonder that there is a growing gap between families at the top and bottom of the nation's income scale.

So if the nation's economic growth, its prosperity, is to be more broadly shared, as the Center for Budget Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute advocate, and as every man seeking to succeed Clinton professes as one of his foremost goals, then it will not be accomplished through economic policy, but through social policy.

For the problem of the poor is not the availability of jobs, for the economy has generated so many new jobs during the past decade that anyone who can't find a job just doesn't want to work. And the problem isn't taxes because most poor folks don't pay taxes, and many actually receive checks from the government in the form of the earned income-tax credit.

No, to close the income distribution gap, the next president will have to have the courage to say that the path to upward mobility for the nation's least-well-off begins at the marriage altar.

That's not to disparage those who are poor and unmarried not by choice, who would like nothing more than to have a loving, supportive spouse to help them raise their children. Only to recognize that there is no government program nearly as effective as marriage in helping a family escape or avoid poverty.

JWR periodic contributor Joseph Perkins is San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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