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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.

For new immigrants, an 'American nightmare' in Los Angeles

Once a promising destination for foreign jobseekers and war refugees, the City of Angels is rolling up its ladder of opportunity.

Comparing the Divide: In Los Angeles and Beijing alike, millions of workers who have left their homes and often their families in search of prosperity find themselves at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. L.A. ranks among the most unequal American cities by income with a Gini coefficient of .485 while China's score is .480. In both places, the odds of making a better life are slim and look to be growing slimmer.

LOS ANGELES — Customers streamed out of the Home Depot parking lot, a fleet of vehicles from shiny four-wheel drive Cadillac Escalades to new Ford pickup trucks laden with cuts of lumber and stacks of drywall, appliances and gardening supplies.

A small group of day laborers clustered around the exit. Jose Perez, 22, and about a dozen other men whistled, waved and shouted at passing vehicles, hoping to get some work. They’ll do just about anything, Perez said, from landscaping to putting together a swing set. He looked concerned but resilient. He said he hadn’t found work in several days.

Then a gray Lexus rolled to a stop and an electric window slid down. The driver extended a manicured finger in Perez’s direction, her blonde perm hardly moving above large, dark sunglasses.

“I need someone who can do cabinets!” she shouted, and a group of five men scrambled toward the passenger side door.

“In the past we used to dream the American Dream, and that was the main thing that brought all these communities here.”
~Jeronimo Salguero, CARECEN Day Laborer Center

They lingered in the road, bargaining with the driver in her fur coat. A few more moments passed, and she drove away, the five men still on the street in East Hollywood.

“She was offering $60 for the whole day,” Perez said, an incredulous smile on his face. “The lowest we’d go is $120. She sees a lot of people here, she thinks she can get it cheap.”

This brief intersection of the rich and the poor on the road to rising inequality in America happens every day in every corner of Los Angeles. It is a defining reality, particularly in cities like L.A. where immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, are constantly haggling to keep their pay somewhere close to a survival wage that will allow them and their families to eat — and to try to send some money home.

If they are successful, men like Perez are often taken west along Sunset Boulevard into the posh areas of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Brentwood to install appliances, paint walls, pour concrete and perform other assorted jobs on the estates of the wealthy or on contractors’ projects.

But labor rights activists and the workers themselves, largely from Mexico and Central America, said the road to payday is often treacherous. Wages have been driven down by a poor economy and many impromptu employers exploit laborers’ lack of legal work status to withhold payment altogether, threatening to call police or immigration authorities if they complain.

Although Los Angeles has emerged as one of the immigration capitals of the United States, with immigrants now composing a third of the city’s population and nearly half of its workforce, it has also become one of the country’s most unequal. Wealth and poverty are nothing new in the City of Angels, Santa Monica, Hollywood and Skid Row, but the growing chasm between rich and poor means that these days L.A. is looking more like a developing economy than the second-largest city in the world’s largest economy.

Santos Agin, a migrant worker, stands waiting for work outside Home Depot in downtown L.A., a short drive from the posh and polished environment of Beverly Hills.
(Sim Chi Yin/VII/GlobalPost)

The Gini coefficient of the L.A. metropolitan area, the standard measure of income inequality, is now .485, among the worst scores for America’s big cities.

That puts the level of inequality in this metropolitan area above the level of inequality in the country of China, which registers as high as .480. The US as a country has now hit .450 (up from .408 in 1997), though the US’s per capita income is still roughly three times that of China.

In China, as many as 250 million migrant workers now help power the country’s economic boom, flocking from impoverished countryside areas into cities. As in China, L.A.’s day laborers have come from poverty elsewhere and represent the bottom rung on the ladder toward prosperity. The middle rungs for which they strive include full-time employment, health insurance, a comfortable home, a good education for the children — the American Dream.

Yet tens of thousands of Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and other immigrant day laborers are lucky if they can find work even 25 percent of the time. Jobs come with the requirement that the employee carry a Social Security number, a response to aggressive immigration enforcement policies that have continued under the Obama administration. Finding a full-time job is a nearly impossible dream.