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Income Inequality: The Journey From Beijing to Los Angeles Isn’t As Far As You Think – MMXLII

Income Inequality: The Journey From Beijing to Los Angeles Isn’t As Far As You Think

Many times we only think of our own little worlds until we have a chance to see something outside of it. Many times people think life somewhere else in the world is better or worse, but the article below shows two places in the world that are very similar these days: Los Angeles & Beijing. Hit the jump to see commonalities in income inequality and unemployment.


BEIJING – On a frigid gray morning outside a furniture mart in the northeast corner of the city, a man named Li has a thick army-green coat draped over his shoulders like a blanket.

Li is far from his home in north China’s Hebei province. He’s a migrant with skills as a plumber who watches every passing car come out of the furniture store like a hawk, desperate to land some work as a day laborer before winter’s early dusk. If he doesn’t, he won’t eat and he won’t have money to send home to his family.

Five days later and 16 time zones away in Los Angeles, I watched as Santos Agin, 26, did much the same in a giant parking lot outside a Home Depot store near downtown Los Angeles.

His hands tucked into his red jacket to keep out the early morning chill, he shuffled in his paint-splattered sweatpants, looking up each time an SUV, truck or sedan went past. Agin called it a day by 10 AM and walked home to his wife and two young daughters empty-handed.

The lives of these two migrants are woven together through the shared experience of just how hard it is to find work in the shadows of two of the greatest economies in the world. Their lives as migrants places them at the lower rungs of an economic ladder in which the distance between the bottom and the top rungs is increasing dramatically and, statistics suggest, making the climb in both places exceedingly difficult.

China last week released new economic data which revealed a rising level of income inequality. In Los Angeles, the level of inequality is on the rise as well, with a Gini coefficient of .485. China’s is estimated at .480 by the CIA World Factbook, though the new Chinese government figure is .474.

The per capita income in Los Angeles is higher at $28,000 compared to Beijing’s at $8,400. Unemployment is three percentage points higher in LA at 16.3 percent. So there economies are not exactly the same, but the distance between the rich and poor is the same, according to the Gini Index.

And this GlobalPost Special Report is about exploring that distance between rich and poor in America and the rest of the world and examining the considerable social costs that come with such vast levels of inequality. I am a photographer and writer who lives in Beijing. I documented the struggle of poor migrants who live in the shadows in Beijing in rundown boarding houses and some who literally sleep underground and are known as the “rat tribe.” In luxury high rises that tower over this reality, there are an increasingly number of multi millionaires and billionaires in China who rarely see or hear from this under class.

But, as many economists here and in the US point out, this level of income inequality creates divisions and tensions and ultimately instability that can someday erupt in political protests and violence.

From LA to China, that cost is hard to see on a cold winter morning in the eyes of a migrant laborer scrounging for work to get by. But the reality is there and people like Li and Agin are left struggling and desperate and trying hard to cling to a belief in the idea of economic mobility, the notion that if you work hard enough you can climb the ladder.

Agin doesn’t give up. He tries to get day labor at the Home Depot several times a week and has done so for the past decade, standing among scores of immigrants who wait for work daily outside the store. This is how Agin is trying to live his ‘American Dream,’ having taken the hard road of trekking and hitch-hitching for a over month from his native Guatemala to get to the United States as a 14-year-old.

Up until recently, Agin had been clocking enough time with a Vietnamese-American boss doing construction work and plumbing, and picking up extra work outside Home Depot to make enough to pay his $750 in rent and another $700 or so in monthly expenses.

With the economic slowdown, work has been harder to come by and Agin says he will soon have to move to a cheaper apartment. He does not have legal papers to stay in the US but insists he will eventually. He keeps going, as he puts it, “for my babies.” [Source]

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