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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.

'Heaven and hell' side by side in Burma

Modern-day feudalism drives income inequality at Pun Hlaing Golf Estate.

Editor’s Note: In the parlance of golf, it’s called ‘playing through.’

And the phrase seems a fitting way to describe how a wealthy, global elite manages to bypass the often harsh inequalities that exist at many of the most expensive, members-only golf clubs around the world.

The well-to-do who can afford the expensive course fees only rarely recognize just how vastly different life is for those who toil on the grounds or carry the golf bags and live below the poverty line. GlobalPost set out to explore this divide in the highest realms of golf, from a course designed by Gary Player on the desperately poor outskirts of Myanmar’s capital Yangon to the Trump International Golf Club in a deeply divided West Palm Beach, Florida.

Caddies, for example, who carry the golf bags for members at Trump International are paid a base rate of approximately $100 per day — about $24,000 per year — at Palm Beach with a membership fee of $250,000 reveals a disparity of wealth that is pretty much on par with the up to $1,250 a year that a caddie makes in one of Myanmar’s top courses compared to the $50,000 membership fees there.

From the golf courses of Palm Beach to Myanmar, GlobalPost found jarring levels of inequality between those who can afford membership and those who work on the course.

“The poor who are staying poor are left very far down. And they are going further down.”
~Chang Lim

HLAING THARYAR, Myanmar — A sprawling slum clings so close to the Pun Hlaing Golf Estate that errant drives from the tee can sometimes land on the thatched roofs of the shacks where 30,000 desperately poor people live amid squalor, open sewers and widespread disease.

There is one row of hovels in particular that back up to a moat of black slime and garbage and run right up against a thick hedgerow and chain link fence that separate the slum from the golf course. From here, the view offers a glimpse into the lush, green fairway and the $1 million mansions made of stucco and red tile roofs that line Myanmar’s most exclusive course. It was designed by the South African golf legend Gary Player and membership fees start at $50,000.

The fetid warrens of the slum lead to the back entry of the golf course and a steel gate which is operated by uniformed guards who slide it open in the morning to allow a small army of laborers — men carrying shovels and rakes and women in cleaning uniforms — into the grounds.

And at the end of the day, as the workers trudge back into this slum where they live, the guards slam the gate behind them. The golf estate operates as a kind of feudal system in which plutocrats from China, South Korea, the United Kingdom (and increasingly the United States) come to play golf at approximately $100 a round on a course where the caddies average about $5 a day. The groundskeepers make no more than $3 a day.

“Here is heaven and there is hell,” said Chang Lim, a successful South Korean businessman and Pun Hlaing member, nodding to the direction of the slum which was invisible from inside the golf course.

“I asked God all the time, ‘What makes it so different for those on the outside and those of us inside living like this?’” said Lim, 61, his arms outstretched to take in the exclusive club’s grass tennis court, the swimming pool and the nearby spa.

Myanmar is one of the poorest countries on the planet and through several decades of military rule it has been largely closed off to the world. So there is little economic data that can provide a clear picture of where Myanmar, also known as Burma, lands on the Gini Index, which measures income inequality.

But economists here say it is a safe bet that the data will reveal a country that may rank among the very highest in terms of income inequality in the world, a place where Chinese venture capitalists partner with the military elite to operate some of the world’s richest jade and copper mines. Where logging magnates rip through forests of teak and sell it at top dollar around the world. And where the vast majority of people — two-thirds by some estimates — live in deep, rural