New Treasury Head Eyes Rising Inequality ; in His First Major Speech Monday, Henry Paulson Pushed America's Wide Income Gap onto the Agenda

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The wide gap between the richest and poorest Americans has not often been the topic of choice for the Bush administration's two previous Treasury secretaries.

So it was notable this week that Henry Paulson, the president's latest Treasury head, chose to put that issue on his short list - as one of the nation's four prominent, long-term economic challenges. Mr. Paulson's head-on approach during one of his first public appearances as secretary differs from his predecessors' strategies, some analysts say.

The wealth gap is hardly new, but income inequality has been growing in America over the past quarter century. Even as average worker productivity has surged, average hourly earnings have stagnated. Meanwhile, the nation's economic elites have prospered.

"Amid this country's strong economic expansion, many Americans simply aren't feeling the benefits," Paulson said during his first major speech as Treasury secretary, at Columbia University's business school in New York on Monday. "Their increases in wages are being eaten up by high energy prices and rising healthcare costs, among others."

Paulson's comments were not merely a blunt acknowledgement of the problem but also a call for solutions - a sign that the income inequality may rise higher on the US policy agenda in the years ahead.

"There's nothing in this problem that suggests a quick fix," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Chief Economist on President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "What is interesting is he chose to include it in his first address, as a way to set the priorities that he sees as important."

A major challenge for the Bush administration - and especially its two previous Treasury chiefs - has been to win credit for the economy's performance. Despite rising oil prices, the 9/11 attacks, and weakness in the European and Japanese economies, the nation's economic output has grown solidly in recent years.

America's gross domestic product is now $13.2 trillion as of this summer, up from $10.4 trillion four years earlier. But a widespread perception - one born out by other statistics - is that workers aren't commensurately better off.

The other three issues Paulson highlighted as long-term challenges were energy policy, maintaining global trade and investment, and - his first priority - reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Those are all longstanding administration goals. Focusing on the income gap, in addition, may reflect several practical concerns. …


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