Connect to share and comment

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.

Glitz and desperation in a Bangkok divided by income

Americans think of Bangkok as embodying the rich-poor divide of the developing world, but some US areas are beginning to rival it.

Comparing the Divide: Upward mobility becomes harder to achieve as inequality grows, and it has become a nearly impossible task for those at the bottom both in Thailand and Bridgeport, Connecticut. - two places that are more than 8,000 miles apart but very close in their Gini coefficient: 0.539 (Bridgeport) and 0.536 (Thailand).

BANGKOK, Thailand — Most male drop-outs living in Bangkok’s most notorious slum, Klong Toei, are presented with two principal career paths: speed dealer or stevedore.

The first involves ducking cops, consorting with junkies and hardening your neighborhood’s rep as a crime-infested no-go zone. Klong Toei’s reputation for selling “ya ba” — pink meth tabs that smell like cotton candy when smoked — is second only to its reputation for catching on fire. Flames easily leap between dwellings in the slum, a labyrinth of buildings packed so tight that alleys remain dim under the Thai noontime sun.

In lieu of meth, Boat Thammongkul, 20, has chosen to work the nearby docks.

“We move heavy stuff at the pier for 500 baht a day,” Boat said. That’s roughly $16 for nine hours at the Klong Toei wharf, a critical hub in Thailand’s export economy and the chief employer of nearby slum dwellers.

“I knew I was poor. I just sucked it up and got used to it.”
~Jiraporn Suthaithum

“Just because people around me sell drugs doesn’t mean we have to,” he said. “Besides, I have a dream. One day, I want to work at a job indoors. With air-conditioning.”

Small dreams and hard labor define the view from Klong Toei. But in Bangkok, a city divided by wealth and class, a mere five miles separates the slums from a glam shopping paradise feeding the appetites of an emerging middle class and a rising upper class.

Inside the crown jewel of the Thai capital’s malls, Siam Paragon, a second-floor showcase displays a Rolls-Royce Ghost. (Sticker price: $942,000.) Downstairs, Swarovski sells a glittering Hello Kitty pendant chiseled from fine crystal.

Weight-conscious ladies can choose from multiple outlets promising to eradicate cellulite with acoustic waves or, for $700, destroy belly fat with a freezing electronic wand. CEOs set on enhancing their karaoke skills can shell out $650 for singing lessons tailored for corporate executives.

This is a world unknown to Boat and his friends, a crew sporting the signature look of the Klong Toei dude: shirtless, scribbled up with tattoo ink, lean-muscled bodies shaped by manual labor and a diet of cheap noodles.

“You say ‘Klong Toei’ and all people see are junkies,” said Kwan Khetpratum, another 20-year-old dock worker who lives near Boat. “If I walked into the malls, the fancy people would look at me strangely. I’ve never even thought of going there.”

Double standards

Most Americans will find it easy to write off Thailand’s rich-poor class divide as predictable in a distant, developing country known for cheap holidays and military coups.

But perhaps they shouldn’t. When it comes to income inequality, Thailand and the US bear a startling statistical resemblance.

Above: Scenes of Klong Toei, one of Bangkok's poorest slums. Below: Scenes in the Central World Mall in downtown Bangkok, Thailand.
(Ed Kashi/VII/GlobalPost)

According to US government figures, America’s wealthiest 20 percent control a bit more than half of the national income. The same is true in Thailand, according to the World Bank.

Rich Americans’ counterparts at the bottom, the poorest 20 percent, take in 3 percent of the national income. In Thailand, the corresponding figure is nearly the same: 4 percent. The world’s premier measure of income disparity, the Gini coefficient, suggests that Thailand’s nationwide wealth disparity is equivalent to that of Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Washington, DC.

Thailand has been transformed by its tiger economy boom years — the 1980s and 1990s — when the nation grew into what the World Bank now calls an “upper-middle income” economy. From 1980 to 2011, Thailand’s per capita GDP soared from $680 to nearly $5,000.

As the nation grows more prosperous, the ranks of the superrich keep swelling. According to the Switzerland-based Julius Baer group, which tracks wealth, Thailand’s stock of 47,000 millionaires in 2010 could swell to as many as 136,000 by 2015.

Thais even have a homespun word for their modern, moneyed jet set: “hi-so,” inspired by the English term “high society.”