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RICH GET RICHER AND POOR GET POORER

New York's slow slide toward a state of haves and have-nots is especially troubling because the current widening of the income gap is powered by an institution in our own state -- the stock market.

The bull market of Wall Street, while bringing prosperity to the Main Streets of most of America, isn't playing as well in the poorer neighborhoods of town. Just as a struggling Western New York economy has missed out on New York's downstate-driven boom times, the lowest-income segments of the state's population are losing economic ground.

According to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, average incomes for the richest fifth of New York families rose by 15 percent from 1988 to 1998 -- while the average income of the poorest fifth dropped by the same rate.

There's no reason to feel bad about the prosperity of those with the funds -- and the daring -- to brave the volatility of the stock market and reap the rewards of its extended boom or those who simply benefit from market-driven business success. But the plight of the poor -- and especially those "lowest-fifth" families whose average annual income is now just $10,770 -- means New York's economic safety nets will be needed more than ever.

The income gap varies widely between states, but New York has the worst disparity. While this state matched the national average of 15 percent increases for the rich, our poor fared far worse. Nationally, even the low-income levels rose by a bit less than 1 percent.

The growing gap adds weight to arguments in favor of raising the minimum wage or indexing it to inflation. An even better solution for Western New York would be job creation through improvements in the local and statewide business climate. The 1 percent local job-growth rate, far below the national 2.2 percent average, makes it difficult enough for anyone to find low-paying service jobs, let alone move up to higher-paying technology or manufacturing positions.

Dissatisfaction over growing income disparities can often be masked by general prosperity -- as long as the economic tide is lifting all boats, however unequally.

But in New York, at least, some of our boats are sinking. A rising tide is no comfort if it just makes it more difficult to keep your head above water.

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