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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.
GlobalPost correspondents gauge the growing distance between rich and poor by comparing Fairfield County, Connecticut with Bangkok, Thailand.
BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut — The distance from here to Bangkok, Thailand is 8,639 miles.
But then, it depends what one means by the word “distance.”
As we discovered in the first installment of this GlobalPost Special Report, by some measures there is not much distance at all.
Take the Gini Index, the scale that economists use to measure income equality, with zero equaling perfect equality and 1 representing absolute inequality in which one person owns everything. Thailand, where Bangkok is the bustling capital city of one of Southeast Asia’s fast growing “Tiger economies,” comes in at .536. The Bridgeport area — Fairfield County — is slightly worse at .539. The two places fall very close in their ranking on the Gini Index as highly unequal.
The Great Divide: Two sides of Connecticut's economic divide reveal price of inequality
The Great Divide: Glitz and desperation in a Bangkok divided by income
Put more simply, these are cities where you can move, often within minutes, between the wrenching poverty of the dispossessed and the opulence of the super-rich. The physical distance between rich and poor in these places is small. But for the people who live in Bangkok and Bridgeport, traveling from the lower economic rungs to the higher ones is extremely difficult.
That has long been true in the developing world. And in America, which has long lived with the idea of mobility and a belief that all have a shot at the American Dream, it is increasingly difficult, as new economic research reveals.
To explore these issues of global income inequality and its cost, GlobalPost begins today a series of reports by more than 20 reporters, photographers and videographers from every corner of the world. The result of more than six months of reporting and data analysis, the Special Report seeks to match and compare American metropolitan areas with foreign countries that have similar levels of income inequality.
For me, the assignment was to return home to Fairfield Country, Connecticut, where I grew up, and explore how the death of industry in Bridgeport has cost good jobs and how US government tax policy over at least two decades has favored the rich, particularly hedge fund managers in the tony town of Greenwich. The result has been vast income inequality.
The Great Divide: The Story Behind the Story - Mike Moran on income inequality
On the other side of the world, GlobalPost senior correspondent Patrick Winn explored Bangkok with its similar level of income inequality in the Gini Index. Winn has lived and worked in Bangkok for the last four years, and his reporting for this project takes readers from the city’s infamous slums to its equally infamous glitzy shopping district where the rich search out world-class bargains on Gucci and Prada.
The journey between Bridgeport and Bangkok was captured in a GlobalPost Special Report video segment titled “The Distance Between Rich and Poor” (above).
It was shot by the award-winning photojournalist Ed Kashi who followed Winn and me through the cities we consider our own.
In both of these places, the top 5 percent of the population controls over 60 percent of income. That translates, in Bridgeport’s case, to a median income for that top 5 percent of over $685,000 a year, while the bottom 20 percent, clustered primarily in dismal slums like Bridgeport’s East End, take home about $15,000, US Census bureau figures show.
For those who live on either side of this divide — in either country — there is a profound lack of identification with the other world. A profound distance.
“I don’t think of it [Bridgeport] at all,” said Karen Schiff, a well-dressed young woman heading home from Greenwich train station from her job in New York. “I don’t think I’ve ever even met someone from there — maybe I drove through, I don’t know.”