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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.

Big Spring, Texas: Where 'oil is God'

Rig workers risk their lives to eke out a living, while oil titans thrive in gated communities of million-dollar homes.

Comparing the Divide: The oil that lies underneath Big Spring, Texas, and Warri, Nigeria, creates economic distance and physical barriers between workers who extract the crude and their privileged bosses. Big Spring and Nigeria also share similar Gini coefficients — the standard measure of income inequality — of .431 (Big Spring) and .437 (Nigeria).

BIG SPRING, Texas — Well before dawn every morning, Joey Goodwin drives through the worn streets of town picking up his crew of roughnecks — oil drilling rig laborers — before heading to work in the oil fields of the Permian Basin. As his rusty Acura bellows across a dark expanse of cotton fields, hundreds of oil rigs illuminate the horizon.

Still dark in the west Texas winter chill, they climb up the rig where they work. Their job for the next ten hours is to jam 50-foot steel pipes into the earth — one after another after another — until they strike oil, preparing the hole for “fracking,” a hydraulic fracturing drilling process. The rig is loud, slippery and dangerous. The stench of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas hangs over the fields.

“You earn a good living, enough to support a family… be a man… but it sure is hard on your body,” said Goodwin, 38. “I’ve broken my back, my neck, never really got either fixed. By now, I’m a pretty much just worn-out chunk of meat.”

Forty-five minutes west of Big Spring is Midland, a city of 120,000, which serves as the region’s financial epicenter and the home base of most of the companies that employ men like Goodwin. As high oil prices and “fracking” have ushered in a major boom in the Basin, Midland has emerged as the epicenter for this new wealth. Here, money and oil flow freely.

“We’re the trash out here, and a lot of people are making a lot of money off our backs. But I can't complain, work is work.”
~Joey Goodwin

In the downtown district of Midland, buildings erected during the last boom cycle are being torn down and replaced by sparkling glass office towers. Midland’s BMW car dealership of the Permian Basin reported a significant increase in the number of sales, even above last year’s, particularly for the 760Li model, priced at $155,000.

As Wes Reeves, a 28-year-old partner in the newly formed Hannathon Petroleum Company, said the boom has attracted some greedy and irresponsible behavior but acknowledged, “In this country, oil is God.”

The economy of the Permian Basin, which accounts for 14 percent of the nation’s oil production, is fractured like the earth beneath the drills. It’s a place of extreme wealth and enticing opportunity for roughnecks like Goodwin who risk their lives and their health. Those on the lowest rungs struggle day-to-day and are increasingly priced out of affordable housing as prices rise amid the oil boom.

Most of the roughnecks in Big Spring are like Goodwin, who dropped out of school in the 7th grade and has served some time in prison. Working in oil fields since his early teen years, he has been in Big Spring for two years. His leathered skin and calloused hands speak to a lifetime of hard labor.

Goodwin, originally from southern Louisiana, is one of thousands of men currently flooding into this part of west Texas, where a boom caused by the high global price of oil and new drilling technology is providing high wages — up to $25 an hour — for those willing to endure the backbreaking labor. In a crossroads like Big Spring, the budget hotels and motels are constantly full as workers pulling 24-hour rotational shifts on the rigs file in and out from the fields.

While he earns a good wage, the cost of living has also been driven up steeply by the oil boom, especially the high demand for housing in a market with a shortage in supply. Goodwin, carrying rental and child support payments, is making just enough to get by.

A west Texas "roughneck" - an oil drilling rig laborer - works on an oil drilling rig in the oil fields of the Permian Basin of west Texas.
(Samuel James/GlobalPost)

“We’re the trash out here,” he said, gazing out from the rig over a dawning horizon, “and a lot of people are making a lot of money off our backs. But I can't complain, work is work.”

Midland’s Texland Estates, a gated congregation of million-dollar homes, brims with green manicured lawns and sparkling fountains. Several mammoth structures are in the process of being erected, in stark contrast to the surrounding desert landscape of brown scrub littered with thousands of teetering oil jack pumps.

“The land here isn’t very pretty,” says resident Kristina Johnson, gazing from her half-finished balcony over the estate’s security walls, “but what I love about design is that you can create your own oasis anywhere you are.”

Johnson, a Texas A&M-educated architect who specializes in high-end, custom-built homes, designed many of the mansions in Texland. “This boom is a blessing, but it’s also overwhelming. At a certain point, I just had to stop taking commissions. It was too much. Last year I had a three-year wait list, just in Midland.”