February 2

Regarding wealth gap, Americans are all over the map

We are, however, all rich in one respect: Our variety of opinions on how to level the economic turf.

By Adam Geller
The Associated Press

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.

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Neal Breen, 21, works at the Ashburn Bagel & Sandwich Shop in Ashburn, Va. Breen, who quit college a year earlier with hopes of saving money to start his own business, is keenly aware of the income gap in the United States.

The Associated Press

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.

‘SEIZING OPPORTUNITY’

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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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