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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.

State of the Union: In Topeka, Kansas, a 'new generation of poverty' feels rising inequality

In a deeply red state that is also part of President Obama's heritage, residents grapple with the government's inability to stem America's rising inequality.

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.

Steve, one of Topeka's many homeless, is originally from Monterey, CA, but has been living with half a dozen friends underneath the Kansas Bridge for the past six months.
(Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost)

TOPEKA, Kansas — The roar of passing cars and trucks echo beneath the Kansas Bridge, the drivers unaware that just below their wheels lies a makeshift encampment where half a dozen homeless men and women have found shelter.

“You get used to it,” said Steve, who asked to be identified by his first name only, gesturing towards the reverberating thunder above. His worn face is half-hidden beneath a blue knit cap as he lights a cigarette. Two years ago, Steve lost his factory job, and a year later his house.

Winter in Topeka brings a dry, biting cold, and the winds whip beneath the tunnel even in the warmest part of the day. Jackets, some canned food, a broken computer monitor and an empty toolbox lay stacked against a nearby support beam, the meager belongings of those who call this lonely outpost home.

“Before it was racial, now it’s economic. We’ve got a new generation of poverty.”
~Sheila McDonald

While nationwide homelessness actually decreased by one percent between 2009 and 2011 — the result of significant federal investment — the tattered ranks of Kansas’ homeless and hungry are swelling, especially among families. During those same years the total meals served at the Topeka Rescue Mission rose 25 percent, and those seeking shelter rose 15 percent. Unable to accommodate the growing need, the Mission is adding on a new building with 170 additional beds.

“It’s indicative of what’s going on here,” says Mark DeGroff, director of communications for the Topeka Rescue Mission, who says he worries that rising income inequality is leaving too many Americans without their most important asset — a home.

The defining issue of our time

Just over a year ago, President Obama spoke to a crowed gathered in the small, eastern Kansas town of Osawatomie, calling growing inequality “the defining issue of our time.” Incomes of the top one percent have more than doubled in the last decade, while the average income has fallen by six percent.

“This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what's at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement,” Obama said.

Osawatomie was chosen for its historic and political resonance. More than a century ago Teddy Roosevelt issued a sounding call for progressive reforms from this same town to a crowd of more than 30,000. The former president called for government regulation of business and labor, and a “graduated income tax on big fortunes,” ideas Obama has also pushed.

The setting also put a spotlight on Obama’s Kansas roots – his mother was from Wichita, her father from El Dorado, and her mother from Augusta. Many here lay claim to Obama as a native son, an identification the 44th president sought to capitalize on: “I like to say that I got my name from my father, but I got my accent — and my values — from my mother.”

On an average morning in Kenya’s capital the streets buzz with the call of matatu drivers, Nairobi’s informal system of minibuses, hawkers selling magazines and chewing gum, and the hiss of oil as raw dough hits the frying pan that an aproned woman has set up on the sidewalk. On the surface this frenetic activity has little in common with Topeka’s understated, orderly industry, yet both places share a Gini coefficient — the standard measure of inequality — of .43.

Obama, too, links these two disparate places. His father was born on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya, before attending college in the United States where he met and married the president’s mother.

Separate and unequal

In Auburn-Washburn, one of Topeka’s most affluent neighborhoods, towering reconstructions of English Tudor estates butt up against French-inspired chateaus, each opening out onto a private, manmade lake. Lenice Massey, now 94 and a great grandmother, has owned three homes in the neighborhood since she first moved here in 1951.