Bernanke: Education Will Narrow Income Gap

Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, delivers the keynote address during the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007.
AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Bolstering education and training — rather than erecting trade barriers — would help narrow the economic gap between low- and high-income workers, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday.

In his most extensive remarks to date on economic inequality, Bernanke also issued a fresh warning for the United States to steer away from policies that seek to erect protectionist barriers to trade and investment opportunities or to stifle the economy's flexibility. Such a course, he cautioned, "would do far more harm than good."

His remarks come as Democrats, who have sought to portray the Bush administration's economic and tax policies as mainly benefiting the wealthy, have made it a priority to take steps to alleviate widening economic inequality in the United States. President Bush, in recent speeches, has tried to calm angst among those who worry about their job and economic security in a constantly changing economy.

Bernanke, in prepared remarks delivered to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said disparities in education and training is "likely the single greatest source of the long-term increase in inequality."

Thus, "policies that boost our national investment in education and training can help reduce inequality while expanding economic opportunity," he said.

A copy of the chairman's prepared remarks was made available in Washington.

His remarks underscore the economic disparity among workers that has widened over the decades.

In 1979, a full-time worker close to the top of the wage scale earned about 3.7 times as much as a full-time worker near the bottom of the wage rung. Reflecting the relatively fast growth of wages of higher-paid workers, workers near the top of the wage scale today earn about 4.7 times as much as those near the bottom, Bernanke said.

Bernanke, while exploring various possible forces behind this, did not offer specific policy solutions. That, he said, must be left to politicians.

In his prepared remarks, Bernanke did not discuss the future course of interest rates. The Federal Reserve last week left a key interest rate unchanged at 5.25 percent amid signs that inflation is easing. Economists think policymakers will leave rates where they are for much of this year. Next week, Bernanke will go to Capitol Hill to deliver the Fed's report on the economy.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.