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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

Glaring class disparity gains attention ahead of Kenya's presidential election

President Obama's focus on income inequality in America resonates with many in the land of his father.

Comparing the Divide: President Barack Obama’s mother was from Kansas, and his father was from Kenya. As Obama prepares to deliver the first State of the Union address of his second term, stories of income inequality from Topeka and Nairobi offer insight into two distant places with a strikingly similar Gini coefficient (.425 in Topeka and .428 in Kenya) where many hope Obama can help reverse a global trend of rising inequality — while others see it as beyond his reach or responsibility.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Dusty morning light glints off the tracks, the rusted beams forming the main artery into Kenya’s largest slum. Crushed together, thousands begin their trek along the rails to the offices and factories of Nairobi’s city center.

Philip Mbithi is one of the millions who survive within Nairobi’s massive informal sector. For the past few years this has been Mbithi's every day, collecting and selling to recyclers the things that others threw away.
(Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost)

Just below the crowds, hidden amid a mountain of waste and discarded objects, Philip Mbithi has already begun his day’s work. He is one of the millions who survive within Nairobi’s massive informal sector, which employs over 80 percent of Kenyans according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ recent 2012 Economic Survey.

Mbithi’s body is wiry and work-hunched; his face set as he methodically sifts through the most wretched of materials. For the past few years this has been his every day, collecting and selling to recyclers the things that others threw away. On a good day he’ll bring in $5, but usually it’s closer to $3.

“The government has never helped me, they don’t know me.”
~Philip Mbithi

Without a waste management system, Kibera’s landscape seems made for this work. Bands of trash crisscross the two-miles-by-a-half-mile stretch of land — along the rails, between the low-slung tin structures that form homes and businesses, under bridges, and within the slum’s winding, polluted streams. Wrestling his way through the trash, Mbithi tosses the thong of a sandal into a sack slung loosely over his shoulder. “My daily bread,” he says, soon adding a medicine bottle, several caps and a mess of wire to his stash.

No one knows for sure how many call Kibera home — most estimates land somewhere around a million people. They exist outside even the most rudimentary network of state support. Water, roads, hospitals, schools, sanitation, electricity — on every count the government has utterly failed to meet the needs of the slum’s residents, labeled squatters in official logs.

“The government has never helped me, they don’t know me,” said Mbithi. “Here in Kibera we’re invisible.”

Kenya’s native son

Kenya has a Gini coefficient — the most commonly used measure of income inequality — of 0.428, and the divide separating Nairobi’s ultra wealthy from the slum-bound here in the capital is massive. Economists say such a wide disparity doesn’t just hurt the 50 percent of Nairobians living in poverty, but actually hinders the growth of a national economy still recovering from prolonged political violence that claimed more than 1,100 lives and displaced 600,000 people following the contested 2007 presidential election.

Across the Atlantic, the wide, groomed highways and tree-lined residential areas that form Kansas’ small, midwestern capital of Topeka appear worlds away from this sprawling mess of a metropolis. Just 15 percent of Topeka’s residents live in poverty, well below Nairobi’s rate. Yet, Topeka’s Gini coefficient is .425, making it almost as unequal as this East African nation.

Topeka and Nairobi share another, unexpected bond: President Barack Obama. While Obama’s mother is from Kansas, his father’s roots lie in a tiny farming village in western Kenya, where the president’s grandmother still lives. While four years in office has reshaped the president’s image at home, in Kenya his message of hope and change remain potent.

“For a long time Africans were intimidated by the rest of the world,” said Dorcas Havene, a monolith of a woman who has sold githeri, a traditional meal of maize and beans, from the same corner in Kibera for the last two decades. “But if someone with blood from here can rule the world, it reminds us that we all stand a chance.”

As Obama was sworn into office last month, elated Kenyans took to the streets of Nairobi in celebration. From his podium in Washington, the president used his second inaugural address to reinforce his message that government must play a larger role in creating equal opportunity, and building a bridge across the canyon that rests between the haves and have-nots of the world.