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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.

Abdo says the trend has benefitted him by unshackling the local economy from the federal government’s pay scale and attracting “the best and the brightest.”

On the strength of the local economy, he’s more than recovered from the national housing bust. “We’re as busy as we’ve ever been right now,” he says.

Abdo Developments is hard at work on a million square foot project at Catholic University and a city block-sized condominium development just over the Potomac in Virginia — Abdo believes it’s the first such project of its scale in the mid-Atlantic since the housing market collapse.

The developments, and they aren’t just Abdo’s, keep going up here because the federal government insulates the region’s economy from the economic shocks felt elsewhere.

"This is an area that’s pretty resilient,” he says.

This is why D.C.’s own peculiar class of wealthy professionals has also fared extremely well through the economic downturn. At the turn of the last millennium, lobbying the federal government was a $1.5 billion industry, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s now a $3.5 billion industry.

A stone’s throw from Anacostia, center of an AIDS epidemic that leaves D.C. with a higher rate of HIV infection that most African nations, lobbyists spend this money to influence hundreds of billions of dollars in federal health spending. Most of them go home at night to D.C.’s suburbs, which contain America’s three wealthiest counties and seven of the top 10.

Bernard Thomas, 47, has his blood work done at the Bread For The City clinic in Washington, DC. All visits are completely free for those needing medical treatment.
(John Stanmeyer/VII/GlobalPost)

Health is in fact the single biggest category of lobbying. It accounted for half a billion dollars in 2011. The health lobby’s clients are pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, professional associations, HMOs, and insurers.

Lobbying on behalf of the residents of D.C.’s Ward 8, the city’s poorest and home to Anacostia, is not big business. Here, unemployment hovers above 20 percent. At one point in 2011, Ward 8 had higher unemployment — 25.1 percent — than any metropolitan area in the country of comparable size.

“The lobbying dollars are just not there for our population,” says Vincent Keane, the CEO of Unity Health Care, the nonprofit charged with caring for D.C.’s poor regardless of their ability to pay. Seventy-nine percent of Unity’s patients are black and 76 percent live at or below the poverty line. The majority rely on Medicaid and one in five are uninsured.

“We certainly can’t compete with the big boys,” Keane says. And so the balance sheets of the insurers and the pharmaceutical companies remain healthier than Unity’s patients.

Not that this is all bad news for Herbert. He’s kept his job since 2003, through an economic downturn that hasn’t done much to blunt the capital’s appetite for private parties. The money in politics means more fundraisers. He recalls one he worked in Georgetown for D.C.’s last mayor, Adrian Fenty, as especially glamorous.

Herbert takes pride in taking care of partygoers’ Lamborghinis, but he also notes the difficulty of making it to work, doctor appointments, and weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous without a car of his own. “It makes the timing thing rough,” he says.