ASHBURN, Va. — The wealthiest county in America is settled deep in 4 a.m. slumber when Neal Breen threads the mini-mansion subdivisions and snow-blanketed fairways on his way to open shop.
There’s two hours yet before the business day begins, but Breen, who is 21, has plenty to do after flipping on the lights. Donning a green apron without taking off his tweed cap, he boils the first of more than 500 bagels, then shovels them into a waiting oven. When the early risers step from their cars at a few minutes past 6, a chalkboard greets them: “Breakfast of Champions.”
Breen, who quit college a year ago with hopes of saving money to start his own business, is keenly aware that the wealth in the neighborhoods where he delivers breakfast sandwiches is, for now, beyond reach. But he does not decry the gap between the Vienna sausage dinners of his childhood and the $168,000 median income of the households surrounding this shopping center, about 35 miles from Capitol Hill.
It just confirms that the free-market economy is working, Breen says, by rewarding those who do for themselves.
“Capitalism is about seizing opportunity. A lot of people get more opportunities than others, but a lot of people aren’t comfortable seizing it,” he says.
When President Barack Obama promised to do something about growing economic inequality in his State of the Union address, he spoke to a public whose own experiences have, like Breen’s, shaped very personal views about who makes it in today’s economy and who gets left behind.
“Those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. … Our job is to reverse these trends,” Obama said.
But in a reporter’s conversations along a drive of more than 400 miles, from communities of wealth to those of poverty, there was little agreement on how to realize that ideal or on what role government should play.
In a college town, a retired elementary school principal whose uneducated father toiled in citrus groves says in this technological age, it’s harder to rise from poverty.
In a faded railroad town along West Virginia’s New River, a young barber is grateful for the programs that helped him pay for training and put food on his table until he found work, but he’s skeptical about people who abuse such aid.
“It’s a conundrum,” says Chris Meyer, the owner of a landscaping business, leaving Ashburn Bagel & Sandwich Shop, breakfast in hand. “How do you make a workable system out of being a compassionate people?”
MORE TAXES, OR LESS INVOLVEMENT?
About 15 minutes away, past the office park housing AOL Corp., Tanveer Mirza sees things very differently.
The thrift shop run by Mirza’s FAITH Social Services is closed today. But the cramped quarters buzz with activity as workers sort and mend donated ladies’ tops that will sell for $2 to $6 downstairs, while those in the upstairs office attend to requests for domestic violence counseling and temporary housing.
Mirza emigrated from Pakistan 37 years ago. In 1999 her mosque started this effort to assist refugees from the war in Bosnia who were being resettled in Northern Virginia. Organizers soon realized that, even amid relative wealth, there were many who needed assistance, including many non-Muslims.
“You don’t think there are people in need, but there are a lot of them,” says Mirza, the organization’s president. “You don’t see them.”
Mirza says her group emphasizes self-sufficiency, but finds people who are struggling frequently can’t get there without a hand. Government plays a critical role.
The U.S. “is not a place where people can pick gold leaves off of the tree,” she says. “In the long run, America is going to be the one which benefits from spending. It’s like an investment – in people.”
Back on the road, subdivisions and corporate headquarters give way to more open spaces. Inside the wood-paneled dining room at the Stonewall Golf Club, friends Diane Wagner, Shari Viellieu and Francie Meade share a lunch table overlooking greens that curl around Lake Manassas. But they have differing views of the economic landscape.
“I believe the minimum wage should be raised, I can tell you that,” says Wagner, a retired corporate office manager. Too many people are struggling to get by, working in fast-food restaurants or others place for wages that can’t possibly support families, she says. She notes that just as she’s counting on Social Security and Medicare, it’s reasonable for others less fortunate to look to the government for help. “I’m willing to pay more taxes if I have to,” she says.
But Meade, an interior designer, has her doubts. “I lean toward less government involvement,” she says. “I think a lot of things have been fixed. I think with education, people do have a possibility of upward mobility.”
Down Lee Highway, in Culpeper, Va., her views are echoed by Rick Sarmiento, a former Army officer, military contractor and retail manager sharing barbecue with son Ricky, 22. Sarmiento knows what retail workers make, but Ricky’s new job in financial services proves it’s possible to do better if you pursue an education, the elder Sarmiento says. He acknowledges, too, that in a country of more than 300 million, there’s no universal solution for leveling the economic turf.
“You ask any 10 people, you’re going to get 10 different responses,” he says.
CREATING FUTURE HELPERS
In Charlottesville, a few minutes’ drive from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello puts you at the door of Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, where Gerald Terrell, the congregation’s senior trustee, is getting ready to lock up for the night.
Terrell, 65, was raised in segregated central Florida by a father who only finished third grade and a mother who took night classes so she could graduate from high school the day before her son received his diploma. .
Certain he did not want to stay in the citrus groves that employed his father, Terrell left for college, became a teacher and eventually a principal for 24 years.
Terrell acknowledges much has changed since the Jim Crow laws of his youth, but says creating economic opportunity requires doing more.
When he was a boy, he says, those with limited education at least knew they could find a job in agriculture or a factory.
Today, “it’s harder because we’ve moved from an industrial society to a technological society. And who has the computer at home? The haves,” says Terrell, who volunteers as a mentor to African-American boys. “They don’t need a handout. … They need support in terms of people helping them to achieve their goals. Now, that may be financially. But they need to be put in a position where they can help somebody else.”
‘GET PEOPLE WORKING’
West about 45 miles, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Staunton, retiree Bob Clatterbaugh glances up from his solitaire hand at the bar of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Post 680. The television screen displays a report on Obama’s minimum wage proposal; Clatterbaugh is skeptical. Bar manager Hope Fitzgerald and Chuck Gallagher, a beverage distributor, join the conversation.
Fitzgerald, 55, recalls earning $15 an hour in the mid-1990s when she worked the line at a now-shuttered men’s suit factory, a job that came with health insurance. Jobs like that have disappeared, she says, noting that her adult son is working temporary positions and lives at home. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, she says, but public assistance too often seems to go to those who aren’t really trying to get ahead.
“The social issues need to take a back seat,” Gallagher says, criticizing Democrats in Washington who focus on increasing aid programs. “They need to figure out a way to get people working.”