Election 2012: In one of America's most unequal areas, a 'Great Divide'

GREENWICH, Connecticut – Travel north on the Post Road past the sprawling horse farms and the elegant mansions of this wealthy enclave.

Along the way, the political signs for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are still scattered on graceful green lawns covered with fall leaves and frost on this morning after the reelection of President Obama.

Journey further up the storied Post Road, as the local route that connects Boston and New York has been called since the American Revolution, and the path leads to Connecticut’s largest and poorest city, Bridgeport.

In Bridgeport, political signs mostly focused on local races are strung along chain link fences that surround red-brick housing projects where despair and violence is in the air and where a predominantly African-American and Hispanic population struggles every day to get by in the relentless challenges of a historic decline in the American economy.

The journey is not long, but the distance between Greenwich and Bridgeport couldn’t be further apart. If there was a thermal mapping of income inequality in America, Connecticut’s 4th congressional district, which is bookended by these zip codes, would be burning bright red.

In fact, US Census Bureau data used to calculate the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, puts “The Great Divide” between Greenwich and Bridgeport as one of the most unequal out of 362 major American metropolitan areas.

The Gini coefficient measures income inequality, ranging from .00 (totally equal) to 1.00 (most unequal). The area bounded by Bridgeport to the north and Greenwich to the south scored a .537, one of the highest scores in the country.

Researchers compared US scores to those of nations around the world, and Bridgeport matched up almost exactly with Bangkok, Thailand. The Gini coefficient for the US as a whole is .450, about the same as Iran and the Philippines. For comparison’s sake, the Gini coefficient for Sweden, the world’s most equal country, is .230.

The steadily rising income inequality undercuts the American dream. And leading economists like Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz say the growing divide also has the potential to unleash political instability in the US and around the world.

Stiglitz outlines this argument in his new book, “The Price of Inequality.” And he is joined by a chorus of economists who’ve authored recent books including Timothy Noah (“The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It”) and Paul Krugman (“End This Depression Now!”).

The consensus among these thinkers is not only that inequality violates moral values, but that it also interacts with a money-driven political system to grant excessive power to the most affluent, and that the self-perpetuating cycle of inequality presents a peril to America and the world as a result.

The much-discussed collapse of the American middle class and the steadily rising income gap in America was an issue at the heart of the bitterly fought presidential race, and it is an issue that GlobalPost plans to continue to cover through a series of reports in the coming months as part of a GlobalPost Special Report titled “The Great Divide.”

This series will compare the income gap in American cities to what could be thought of as ‘sister cities’ in inequality around the globe. The series intends not just to document the inequality but to explore global ideas on how best to address the problem.

And so we decided to begin the journey right here on one of the oldest roads in America on the day of an historic election as a way to frame the challenges that lie ahead for President Obama and all of the world’s leaders in addressing this issue.

More from GlobalPost: America the Gutted, an in-depth series

In a polling station at Greenwich’s Glenville Elementary School, the polished floors and high-tech classrooms still shining from a recent $20 million renovation, Stephanie Zboray was the last person to vote, rushing in with her 8-month-old baby in a car seat.

Her husband grew up in Greenwich and she moved in to this wealthy enclave a year ago. But Zboray says she has perhaps a unique perspective on her own community as someone who travels every day between both sides of America’s economic divide. She lives in a nice home in Greenwich, but she is employed as a social worker in the Bronx. In fact, she was rushing from work in the Bronx to cast her vote just before the doors of the school closed.

“I think the disparity is getting larger and larger in our country,” said Zboray. “I do home visits to families and I have seen this all very closely and in very real, human terms.”

“I think it is one of the most important issues we face s a country and both candidates addressed it,” said Zboray, who said she did not want to share who she voted for but that she wants to see the next president focus on this problem.

Up the road in Bridgeport, the entry to the Central High School was dark and the parking lot pavement was cracked and uneven and the school appeared to be run-down, in need of paint and municipal revenue. The blue lights of a police car flashed past on adjacent North Avenue.

Inside a polling station at the school, a long line of voters stretched into the lobby past a glass trophy case. On display inside the case was a dusty leather football from the 2009 Interscholastic Conference Western Championship in which Bridgeport beat Greenwich in the final game. 

The final score was hand painted on the football: Greenwich—13; Central—14. It was a memorable victory for this town against its football rival. But the gridiron is one of the very few playing fields on which these two towns are competitive. In every other category of annual income, education levels, life expectancy and crime rates, Bridgeport is losing by a mile.

Stacey Peters, 36, was exiting the polling booth and holding the hand of her 7-year-old daughter. They were walking briskly in the cold, but stopped for a minute to discuss the election and some questions about her views on income inequality and specifically whether she knew she lived in one of the most unequal metropolitan areas in America.

“I am not surprised. There are some of the richest people in the world all around us. And just look around you here, we are on the edge of a depression,” Peters said, shifting impatiently in the cold.

Like the Greenwich mom who is a social worker in the Bronx, Peters travels both sides of the divide. She is a home nurse for the elderly and worked for several years in Greenwich.

“I see how the other side lives. I don’t have a problem with that. If you are wealthy, God bless you. But I have a problem if they aren’t paying the same tax rate that I do. We need an even playing field,” she said. 

“Obama did not cause the situation, but I think he can make a difference and that is why I voted for him,” she said, her daughter peeling an “I voted” sticker off her mother’s coat lapel and putting it on her own.

Peters explained that she came to the US in 1985 from Jamaica and she has visited regularly since then. Jamaica has great income inequality, she said, but with a significant difference than the United States. And from her point of view the difference is that in the US people still believe in opportunity and upward mobility.

“There is more opportunity here in America for sure. We need to keep that spirit of opportunity and that’s why I am counting on Obama,” she said.

“If we lose that sense of opportunity than I would have to say there is very little that separates us from all the other places in the world where you have the very rich and the very poor. I think it’s the biggest challenge we have right now. I am praying for the next president. I’m praying for the country that we figure it out,” she said before turning up the collar on her coat, taking her daughter’s hand and walking down a dark street toward home.