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EVEN TO BRING such matters up these days is to be suspected, and usually to be accused, of practicing class warfare, of defaming capitalism and of inciting an expropriationist greed among the gimme poor.

But the disturbing fact is there nonetheless: The gap between rich and poor is now wider in the United States than in any other industrial nation. We've replaced Britain as the leader in this dismal contest.We will fail to attend to this inequity at our certain peril.

The top 1 percent of U.S. households owns 40 percent of the nation's wealth; the top one-fifth owns 80 percent. The lowest-earning fifth takes in just 5.7 percent of the after-tax income and has virtually no assets.

Argue about the whys and the so-whats, but the numbers remain. This is arithmetic, not politics, and the data come from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, straight arrows both.

The gap began widening in the '70s, grew faster in the '80s, is still growing and will widen even more if new congressional policies prevail that pinch public services and support for the poor and for low-wage workers and redistribute the savings to the well-off.

Some of the gap can be laid to a laggard minimum wage, and, for all the cater-wauling about a run-amok "welfare state," to public assistance at the economic margins that is less than that provided by other, comparably rich nations.

Private-sector behavior is involved. Japanese companies on average pay their top management 10 times more than workers; U.S. companies pay about 25 times more.

The United States, too, may simply be ahead of an evolving worldwide trend, as high-skill jobs are generously paid and low-skill work is devalued.

What the problem is surely NOT is a slothful underclass.

Forget all that country-club blather about unanswered job ads. Few in the poverty ghettos are lapsed sales reps, dental hygienists and so on.

Burger-mongering may go begging at twice the minimum wage in the suburbs; our poor are now so remote and socially isolated most don't know about those jobs and can't get to them if they do. But in poor neighborhoods, applicants line up even for minimum-wage jobs.

It is a special cruelty in the circumstances to abuse the poor with their own poverty, citing their very plight as the proof of their worthlessness, the fashion these days.

A decent nation does not scoff at its poor. A prudent nation is skeptical, at least, of a politics that holds - to the convenience of the well-off, as it happens - that the best thing to do for the poor is to beat on them until they get the message to stop being poor.