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Americans grapple with income inequality

By Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 06:30 a.m. HST, Feb 02, 2014



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 meets them at the door: "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. He's long known what it means to have less; he recalls growing up as the son of a pastor whose earnings sometimes made it tough to feed five children. But he does not decry the gap between the Vienna sausage dinners of 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.

The speech addressed deeply held convictions: Americans know firsthand the challenges of trying to get ahead, and sometimes just getting by, and speak reverently about making sure the country fulfills its promise as a land of economic opportunity.

But in a reporter's conversations along a drive of more than 400 miles, from communities of wealth to those of poverty, from areas where politics increasingly lean Democratic to those fast tilting Republican, 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?"

___

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. Last July, she said, more than 800 people waited in line for four to five hours to receive food packages at the group's annual Herndon Without Hunger program, timed to coincide with Ramadan.

"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. She and other FAITH administrators decry recent cuts in food stamp benefits and long-term unemployment assistance.

She recalls the struggles of families the group has helped: The two girls they assisted with college tuition after their father died. The Iraqi refugee family who relied on temporary housing and pharmacy training before eventually finding work.

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 you 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 says his view is shaped by his own experiences and those of his parents, medical workers who moved to Chicago from the Philippines and made their own way. Sarmiento knows what retail workers make and some of his son's friends from high school are working two or three such part-time jobs to get by. 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.

It's fitting then that another hour on the road leads to Charlottesville, the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, whose sometimes conflicting views on human striving and equality are a reminder that the country has struggled with questions of economic opportunity since its earliest days. A few minutes' drive from 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. Terrell says he knew at 13 that he wanted to be a school principal, so he asked his father for old keys and started walking around with them swinging from his belt -- convinced that they were the symbol of someone in charge. Certain he did not want to stay in the citrus groves that employed his father, he 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. He points out that his church sits just across the street from a public housing project where children of families often don't have the advantages that wealthier families consider basic. At least when he was a boy, those with limited education 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."

___

West about 45 miles, at the foot of the Blue Ridge 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."

Into the mountains and across the state line to West Virginia, highway signs tout one county after another as "A Certified Business Location." Ten miles off the interstate, down a twisting two-lane road, haircutter Brian Cooper settles into his own red leatherette barber chair in downtown Hinton, having seen his last customer of the day, though its just 3:45 p.m.

Cooper, 33, has a unique perspective on the economy of this faded railroad stop in one of the state's poorest counties, which hugs a steep hillside along the New River. He left town for college, taught school for 10 years before deciding it wasn't the right fit, and decided to retool with a trade. The switch might not have been possible without government assistance. He took out a $10,000 federal student loan to pay for barber school and while he was out of work, applied for government assistance to help cover food costs. He's self-supporting now, running his own business thanks to a chair offered by a senior barber. But that doesn't mean it's easy.

"Can you imagine paying $8 for a haircut? That's telling you the kind of economy that's here," he says.

But Cooper, whose shop sits across the street from the local office of the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program, says that while he sees the economic divide widening, he's doubtful about government programs that try to remedy it. Often it seems there's more incentive for the unemployed to work the system, rather than go to work for minimum wage, he says.

"It's harder for the middle class to get ahead," he says. "I just don't feel like the opportunities are out there for people. There are lot of ideals and theories, but I don't think they're put into practice very well. ... The hardest workers are the ones paying for everybody else."

But he acknowledges the role that assistance played in helping him get a leg up.

"I can see it from both sides of the fence," he says.

Ninety miles north in Charleston, upriver from the state Capitol, The Cold Spot serves hot garlic wings in multiples of six, tempered by pitchers of beer. In theory, there's a president out there tonight delivering a State of the Union speech. But inside the bar, the sets are tuned to West Virginia University basketball. Cheers go up when the Mountaineers triumph, 66-64.

With the game over, Brian Snyder, who runs a one-man glass business, takes a moment to consider economic inequities. Increasing assistance to the poor isn't fair because it will raise taxes on everyone else, he says. People should have to earn everything they get. "The gap keeps on growing and it's not right at all," says Snyder, who is 43 and used to employ others in his business until times got tighter. But he's certain most politicians are so disconnected from the lives of ordinary Americans, they aren't capable of fixing it.

"What would I do if I were president?" Snyder says. He looks around the bar to the tables and stools filled with chemical plant workers, a septic truck driver, and an ultrasound technician who moonlighted as a waitress to pay down student loans.

"I'd fire everyone in the House and the Senate," Snyder says, "and put working class people in who actually know what it's like to be out here."

___

Adam Geller can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/adgeller.






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Americans grapple with income inequality




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kuroiwaj wrote:
If two people doing the same job with the same training and time in grade, they must be paid the same or it's against State and Federal labor laws. Don't understand what SA is describing as income inequality.
on February 2,2014 | 06:18AM
RetiredWorking wrote:
kuroiwaj, maybe the SA is describing the inequalities in job opportunities.
on February 2,2014 | 07:21AM
dontbelieveinmyths wrote:
It's the "look at what they have. It's so unfair" mentality.
on February 2,2014 | 08:41AM
what wrote:
The State legislator agrees, they voted themselves a 33% pay raise, paid for by your tax money. Pay up!
on February 2,2014 | 11:02AM
PMINZ wrote:
"income inequality" Ok just what is that? Of corse different jobs will not have the same wages. The president does not make the same wages as a dish washer does. DUH! "income inequality" is a BS statement. Naturally not every one is going to make the same wages. Our illustrious President has started this by "coining" this statement trying to distract people from his attempt to change tha USA into a socialistic country. With the Obama Care Law. What does he know about holding a Job? Just what "JOB" has he ever had?
on February 2,2014 | 06:24AM
frontman wrote:
He was a community organizer ...union thug, in Chicago.
on February 2,2014 | 07:04AM
Anonymous wrote:
PMINZ, that's rich. Just what "JOB" has he ever had? Ummm, attorney, congressman, now the highest government position in the U.S. How can you logically downplay those credentials? And what's YOUR job?
on February 2,2014 | 07:15AM
kekelaward wrote:
Lost his ability to practice law. The reason has been sealed. The only thing he did as a congressperson was to vote present and to campaign for his current position, which he hasn't done anything in (except make things worse). Our job is to continue to pay taxes, so idiot politicians can squander them.
on February 2,2014 | 08:07AM
eoe wrote:
This isn't about dishwasher's wages. Its about the fact that in 2012 the bottom 99 percent of wage earners go an approximate 1% pay raise, while the top 1% got 20%. The game is rigged. Wake up.
on February 2,2014 | 07:25AM
RetiredWorking wrote:
eoe. the game is rigged. I TOTALLY agree with that. Your statement says it all.
on February 2,2014 | 08:12AM
dontbelieveinmyths wrote:
NO. Most of us are just not skilled enough to be at the top of the "game". However, we sure can be comfortable. Just don't have to look at the top 1% and think that we "should" have the same things. Get off the jealousy trip and make do with what you have. If you're not satisfied, improve your game.
on February 2,2014 | 08:44AM
kekelaward wrote:
He had JOB rolling papers while at Punahou
on February 2,2014 | 08:05AM
frontman wrote:
Thank You, obama
on February 2,2014 | 07:02AM
frontman wrote:
He was a union community organizer in his home town, Chicago. How he taught constitutional law, one wonders as he is destroying the Constitution every day he is in office.
on February 2,2014 | 07:06AM
eoe wrote:
Oh goodness, the sky is falling, the sky is falling.
on February 2,2014 | 07:21AM
kekelaward wrote:
He was an assistant lecturer. He was not highly thought of by the other faculty of UC.
on February 2,2014 | 08:12AM
eoe wrote:
Dishwasher slaves away all year, gets additional $.25/hr raise. Jamie DImon, head of criminal enterprise JP Morgan, barely escapes a criminal guilty plea and his company is hit with more than $20 billion in regulatory fines and penalties in 2013. Does he get fired, or a reduction in pay? No, he gets a $20 million raise, a 74% increase in his salary. Boy these "job creators" have it so tough, all these people angry and jealous at their well deserved salaries.
on February 2,2014 | 07:29AM
Grimbold wrote:
CEO's are getting greedier by the day. Their remunerations are humongous and unwarranted. What most people don't know: They are also shortchanging the millions of ordinary citizens that put their savings into the stock market by vacuuming off the profits of companies..
on February 2,2014 | 07:41AM
soundofreason wrote:
THAT'S called "reinvesting" your money.....for more money. The money for "stock" is used by the company to buy/build/ and grow. Growing JOBS as well. How ironic they you make this "CEO ...greedy" statement on the VERY day football players will earn 90k today for their four hour performance to fit in with their 40 million dollar contracts while running NO company that employees hundreds or thousands. And just WHAT do you think the average income is of those 1percenters filling those seats in the stadium? Those poor....poor.....1 percenters. Don't hear anybody "envying" the money they had to spend to GET their education, not to mention the TIME it took to get the education. Just hands out for rewards. Don't like workin' for "the man"? Quit. Quit and open your own company.......TODAY.....or shut up.
on February 2,2014 | 09:09AM
Grimbold wrote:
In sports there are exceptionally talented players, for CEO position there are 10 thousands of equal qualities, and many high paid CEO failed miserable, showing that .
on February 2,2014 | 10:05AM
soundofreason wrote:
THAT'S called "reinvesting" your money.....for more money. The money for "stock" is used by the company to buy/build/ and grow. Growing JOBS as well. How ironic they you make this "CEO ...greedy" statement on the VERY day football players will earn 90k today for their four hour performance to fit in with their 40 million dollar contracts while running NO company that employees hundreds or thousands. And just WHAT do you think the average income is of those 1percenters filling those seats in the stadium? Those poor....poor.....1 percenters. Don't hear anybody "envying" the money they had to spend to GET their education, not to mention the TIME it took to get the education. Just hands out for rewards. Don't like workin' for "the man"? Quit. Quit and open your own company.......TODAY.....or sh ut up.
on February 2,2014 | 09:12AM
Ronin006 wrote:
Grimbold, did it ever occur to you that the salaries and bonuses paid to corporate executives are not determined by the executives but are instead determined by corporate boards of directors who are elected by shareholders? It is true, so don’t target the executives as the bad guys or gals.
on February 2,2014 | 09:18AM
Grimbold wrote:
The boards give the CEO high profits, so their own salaries are looking comparable low and they have an argument for raising their own profits..
on February 2,2014 | 10:07AM
kekelaward wrote:
Amazing amount of liberals are billionaires, but you don't bring their names up. Very odd. They, like Obama, are 1%ers too.
on February 2,2014 | 08:13AM
dontbelieveinmyths wrote:
The salary of some of these CEOs are outrageous. What has that got to do with the dishwasher? The dishwasher is just that, a dishwasher. Yes the dishwasher is needed, but almost anyone can do this low skilled job.
on February 2,2014 | 08:48AM
Mavis wrote:
Raises, whether they be for dishwashers or CEOs, are misunderstood. They imply that something the worker is doing is inherently more valuable than before. Generally, one would "expect" a raise to cover the cost of inflation, which is at historic lows. Any increase over that is simply a reflection of relative value of that job. In the case of the dishwasher, that's basically zero, since it's the same task year in and year out, at least until the restaurant closes. In the case of the CEO, it's based on financial results; how much money he has made for others, including pension funds that provide money for people at all levels in the economy. It's really about opportunity inequality, not income inequality, and that opportunity comes from education, and the ability to use learned skills to advance to the next level, where salaries are higher. The government plays an important role in providing equal opportunity, not equal pay, and it is the market that determines the value of that work. Making people comfortable at any given level means that they have less incentive to strive for the next level. Traditionally, minimum wage jobs were for people with no experience, starting on the first rung of the ladder. Making such jobs pay a "living wage" could make that first rung the only rung that people strive for, reduce the value of education and advancement, and create a permanent economic "lower class". Is that the society we want?
on February 2,2014 | 09:44AM
eoe wrote:
Dishwasher slaves away all year, gets additional $.25/hr raise. Jamie DImon, head of criminal enterprise JP Morgan, barely escapes a criminal guilty plea and his company is hit with more than $20 billion in regulatory fines and penalties in 2013. Does he get fired, or a reduction in pay? No, he gets a $20 million raise, a 74% increase in his salary. Boy these "job creators" have it so tough, all these people angry and jealous at their well deserved salaries.
on February 2,2014 | 07:30AM
Grimbold wrote:
Ten million of illegal immigrants keep wages low.
on February 2,2014 | 07:35AM
kekelaward wrote:
Then we can expect wages to get even lower.
on February 2,2014 | 08:14AM
dontbelieveinmyths wrote:
Yeah, otherwise you would be out there picking strawberries? Doubt it. The reason immigrants get these jobs is because they are WILLING to do it for the wage that it pays. The unemployed American will say, I'll do it, but you must pay me a high wage. Geez, look at what happened to sugar and pineapple in Hawaii. Unionize, higher wages....out of business.
on February 2,2014 | 08:51AM
kekelaward wrote:
Lost his license to practice law. Reason has been sealed. Used dirty tactics to gain a seat in the Senate. Voted present while there, when he was not out campaigning for his current position (which he has accomplished nothing, other than making things worse for our country). Our job is to pay taxes, so that politicians can squander themn.
on February 2,2014 | 08:10AM
stingray65 wrote:
He did not lost it!! He give it up as well as his wife..Why? True somesone sealed it so it cannot be expose for some legal reason.. Like someone says, his home town is Chicago? Who in the world still believe that he was born in Hawaii? Someone should know the first two digits of his social security number! It was not from Hawaii!!
on February 2,2014 | 08:43AM
Ronin006 wrote:
The term “income inequality” suggests that everyone should have the same amount of income to have “income equality.” It is an absurd concept concocted by Democrats, led by the President, to divide and pit Americans against one another. It follows the old military concept of “divide and conquer” and has been the cornerstone of the Obama administration, which is tearing apart American society. People who work hard, save their money, risk their money by opening businesses, hire people and succeed in their businesses deserve to have more money, lots more, than the so-called middle class and those on the government dole.
on February 2,2014 | 09:11AM
eoe wrote:
No that is absolutely not what it means. Maybe this video will help you understand. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM
on February 2,2014 | 09:26AM
primowarrior wrote:
Thank you for posting this. Like they say, one picture is worth a thousand words, and the charts are very eye opening.
on February 2,2014 | 12:13PM
Ronin006 wrote:
I have watched this video which anyone could have produced. No sources are cited for any of the information contained in the video, yet you accept it as factual. Even if it was true, I do not begrudge anyone who risks their own money to get ahead in America and succeed in doing so. It used to be something that every American admired and hoped to achieve, but thanks to Obama’s incessant attack on the so called rich, it now is something to be scorned and considered bad. It is unbelievable how far Americans have moved away from dreaming and achieving the American dream. Jealousy now rules the day.
on February 2,2014 | 02:27PM
eoe wrote:
It took me about 10 seconds of googling to find the source. But of course why would you do that, socky?
on February 2,2014 | 05:20PM
soundofreason wrote:
THAT'S called "reinvesting" your money.....for more money. The money for "stock" is used by the company to buy/build/ and grow. Growing JOBS as well. How ironic they you make this "CEO ...greedy" statement on the VERY day football players will earn 90k today for their four hour performance to fit in with their 40 million dollar contracts while running NO company that employees hundreds or thousands. Just where's the outrage over THAT? No? And just WHAT do you think the average income is of those 1percenters filling those seats in the stadium? Those poor....poor.....1 percenters. Don't hear anybody "envying" the money they had to spend to GET their education, not to mention the TIME it took to get the education. Just hands out for rewards. Don't like workin' for "the man"? Spend $300 for a mower and a business and you're on your way. Quit your terrible job. Quit and open your own company.......TODAY.....or s hut up.
on February 2,2014 | 09:16AM
eoe wrote:
Please tell me what "jobs" the criminal syndicates of JP Morgan, Sachs, Chase, CitiGroup et al are creating? They have been making incredible profits the last few years, but I keep hearing conservatives screaming about the lack of jobs, how weak this recovery is. So where are the jobs created when these people hoover money with their arcane financial transactions?
on February 2,2014 | 09:38AM
soundofreason wrote:
JP Morgan.........."Total Number of Employees, 260,095." Total Number of Employees, 260,095. James Dimon Chairman and CEO $27.8 million Salary.

Peyton Manning........30 million.......Employees.......not so much?. Where's the outrage from the one percenters in the stands??


on February 2,2014 | 10:04AM
Winston wrote:
Interesting comparison to pro sports. Here's another perspective: Assuming your numbers are correct, every JP Morgan employee would get a whopping $1,065 raise is Dimon's entire compensation was distributed to the company work force.

eoe's class warfare thing has an appeal to it until you start doing the math.


on February 2,2014 | 10:57AM
eoe wrote:
Yes, except SoundOfReason just lied, and multiplied the number of JP Morgan employees by 10. JP Morgan does not have 260,095 employees, it has 26,314, not that that has anything to do with what we are talking about here.
on February 2,2014 | 11:21AM
Ronin006 wrote:
Sorry, your numbers are wrong. JP Morgan does have 260,095 employees. Here is the source: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/global500/2012/snapshots/2608.html. Here is another source: http://www.statisticbrain.com/jp-morgan-chase-co-company-statistics/
on February 2,2014 | 07:33PM
soundofreason wrote:
http://www.macroaxis.com/invest/ratio/JPM--Number-of-Employees
on February 2,2014 | 07:34PM
Meleana22 wrote:
soundofreaon -- well said! Those complaining about un-equality idolize the athlete that make millions and millions of dollars annually and they're fine with it; Put a suit on a guy who makes a big salary and he is vilified.
on February 2,2014 | 03:43PM
primowarrior wrote:
"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." I think everyone agrees that more jobs are needed, but that's not something that's going to happen overnight. It may take years, if ever, given the current divide in Washington. There are roughly three unemployed people for every job opening. What do they do to feed and shelter their families in the meantime if the government doesn't help them until they can get back on their feet?
on February 2,2014 | 12:30PM
maya wrote:
Income inequality is a result of- 1. Getting pregnant without any means of support. 2. Dropping out of high school 3. Actually going to college, but getting an easy liberal arts degree in art, or social studies, instead of trying for engineering or computer science. 4. Receiving unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, instead of just getting the lower paid job so your resume looks full, and attractive to employers. 5. Having too many kids that you cannot support. 6. Multiple marriages and divorces. 7. Electing politicians who vote for NAFTA, and other trade agreements that take away jobs from the lower middle classes.
on February 2,2014 | 05:45PM
duna6430 wrote:
The media is trying to make this a topic for the upcoming elections. Look at the calendar - see what this administration hasn't accomplished, and realize they're pandering for votes. And we're going to get lied to AGAIN.
on February 2,2014 | 06:31PM
keys4me wrote:
i never heard this term " income inequality" until this devisive President came along.
on February 2,2014 | 06:32PM
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