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Bring prosperity to more Americans

The snack stand at the airport here has the usual little jar for tips. But the sign on the jar doesn't just say "Tips." It says "401(k)" and invites customers to contribute to the workers' tax-deferred retirement account. Now that's the new economy for you.

The tip jar, of course, isn't really for a 401(k) plan. But Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at Notre Dame, told the story with some glee at a conference here this week.

"They realize that they're without something, that they need more than extra wages," she said. "401(k) is about more than retirement security. It's a ticket to the middle class. It's about making it."

All the good economic news _ including rising wages that are modestly reducing income inequalities _ suggests a lot of people are making it. But at a meeting of business and union leaders, politicians and scholars at the Aspen Institute, Ghilarducci and others pointed to numbers showing that many Americans have a long way to go.

Ghilarducci noted that "voluntary, employer-provided pensions continue to cover only 50 percent of the work force." Health-care specialists Deborah Chollet and Howard Shapiro pointed to the 44-million Americans who lack health insurance and the pressures that could send that number still higher.

Still, the good economy is having a soothing side effect. For all the posturing in Washington over tax cuts, a consensus is quietly developing over how to define the country's social problems and how to begin solving them.

The idea is that everyone who can work should _ the smart aspect of the flawed welfare reform bill Congress passed three years ago _ but "that people who do work ought to be able to support themselves and their families," as David Ellwood, director of Aspen's Domestic Strategy Group, put it.

That may sound like common sense, but it took years of intellectual scrapping to get to this point. "There's little debate anymore about making work the center of social policy," said Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University. "That might have been controversial on the left a few years ago. And there's little debate that poor people who work should get government support to rise from poverty. That might have been controversial on the right a few years ago."

Former Republican Congressman Vin Weber agreed, arguing there is a "remarkable consensus on what our public problems are" and on the need to find public, including government, solutions for them. "There's not a basis for a big ideological fight," Weber said."

The better argument would be over practical steps to improve the lives of the working poor and near-poor. Indianapolis' Republican Mayor Steve Goldsmith spoke of the urgency of helping not only the very poorest 20 percent of the population but also the next group up _ those who have managed to rise out of poverty but are just hanging on.

One obvious problem is health coverage. Chollet, vice president of the Alpha Center, said insuring the uninsured would cost about $800-billion over 10 years _ interestingly, almost exactly the price tag for the tax cut Republican negotiators agreed to this week.

Another fix that ought to win bipartisan support is the marriage penalty that exists within the earned income tax credit. The EITC supplements the incomes of poor families with a full-time worker. But under current law, if two recipients of the EITC marry each other and if both continue to work, they can lose up to 22 percent of their income, according to Ellwood. Can any advocate of "family values" be comfortable with that?

Nor must jobs often referred to as "dead-end" lead nowhere. When job training is rooted in local markets, employers, workers and unions identify the needs of local businesses and prepare employees for jobs that exist, or soon will. Deborah Moy, project coordinator for the San Francisco Hotels Partnership Project, spoke of how cooperation between labor and management on training improved service and productivity in the city's hotels, reduced labor strife and gave employees new opportunities to move up the job ladder.

What's true of the hotel industry might be true of politics: The problem-solving spirit heals friction and contentiousness. "The Congress looks much more partisan and ideologically polarized than the country," Brinkley says. Perhaps Moy can bring her consensus-building skills to Washington.

+ E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. +

Washington Post Writers Group