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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.

Inauguration Day: DC elites prosper amid America's rising income inequality

An unmistakable disparity in life expectancy and access to quality health care have become hallmarks of the Washington, DC area.

Comparing the Divide: Income dictates access to health care in the capital cities of Russia and the United States, where lawmakers debate policy mere miles from some of the country’s most underserved communities. Russia’s Gini coefficient, at 0.420, is actually better than that of Washington, D.C. at 0.435.

WASHINGTON — Two blocks from Capitol Hill, on the day after Congress passed the first significant tax increase on the wealthy in 20 years, Herbert, 63, who parks cars for a living, sits in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

He pegs his level of concern over the Capitol’s looming spending battles, in which Democrats and Republicans will face off over cuts to the nation’s social safety net, at about a four out of 10.

He says he’s in good spirits and good health today, a small miracle for a man addicted to heroin and living in a homeless shelter with a history of considerable health problems.

Herbert, who asked that his last name not be used because he did not want to lose his job, receives free access to care provided by the city. It’s been available to him, he said, since he’s decided to start taking care of himself. His visit to the doctor on this day is for lower back pain, and he’s thankful to have some coverage.

“The lobbying dollars are just not there for our population. We certainly can’t compete with the big boys.”
~Vincent Keane, CEO, Unity Health Care

Herbert’s valet work is for a company that services private events, and he’s parked cars for the likes of Bill Clinton and Donald Rumsfeld. It’s a busy weekend on the party circuit with President Obama’s inauguration. The people at these parties, D.C.’s wealthy, have prospered even as the nation as a whole has not. But Herbert doesn’t resent his clients’ wealth — far from it.

Herbert’s something of a stoic. He says he embraces the lot given him by God — “We park the cars,” he says. “You go and have a party.”

In the capital of a nation increasingly divided by both class and politics, Herbert’s story offers something of a litmus test.

To liberals, Herbert’s a man whose chemical dependency problem has been criminalized by the federal government and who, despite holding down a steady job, cannot escape homelessness. Two blocks from where he seeks health care from a medical center in the basement of the nation’s largest homeless shelter, the House of Representatives has put the country through considerable anxiety to protect tax breaks for people earning $300,000.

To staunch conservatives, Herbert’s a black drug addict unable to wean himself from the welfare state. Rush Limbaugh would have loved to hear that Herbert had the nerve to ask for Viagra from the government-funded clinic because life in an all-male shelter has taken a toll on the time for intimacy in his marriage.

Washington is a one-horse town, as they say, and just about everything is viewed through the prism of partisan politics. Health care is a lightning-rod issue and one that starkly defines how income inequality has created a society in which the wealthy have the resources for “valet” services that provide them full access to a nation with the greatest medical care in the world.

But the poorest are often in peril in a system that may help them scrape by with free clinics like the one Herbert attends, but leaves many in the rungs just above them, the working poor, uncovered and vulnerable.

But Washington, D.C. doesn’t just serve as a prime example of rising inequality. It drives much of it.

Indeed, there is a broad consensus among liberal and conservative economists that government policy — specifically a tax structure that favors the wealthiest Americans — has been a determinant factor in rising income inequality in America.

That machinery, fueled by powerful lobbyists who ensure that these tax breaks remain in place, is what has driven inequality through at least five successive presidencies, Democrats and Republicans, and earned America’s ranking as one of the worst for income inequality among the top, 34 developed countries, according to a 2011 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

First in War, First in Peace, Last in Equality

Washington’s poor are some of the sickest people in the country, and their lives among the shortest. Washington’s affluent, meanwhile, enjoy not only a good deal of power but also some of the longest lives of any group in the country. The state of affairs in the capital illustrates the real upshot of what’s at stake in America’s growing class divide: how long you live — and how well.