Wednesday, July 30, 2014         

 Print   Email   Comment | View 14 Comments   Most Popular   Save   Post   Retweet

Americans grapple with income inequality

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 11:42 a.m. HST, Feb 23, 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 last month, 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.

More From The Star-Advertiser

Americans grapple with income inequality

 Print   Email   Comment | View 14 Comments   Most Popular   Save   Post   Retweet

You must be subscribed to participate in discussions
By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. Because only subscribers are allowed to comment, we have your personal information and are able to contact you. If your comments are inappropriate, you may receive a warning, and if you persist with such comments you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email commentfeedback@staradvertiser.com.
Leave a comment

Please login to leave a comment.
kuroiwaj wrote:
There is income equality in America for one very simple reason, Pres. Obama refuses to create good middle income jobs. I just presented testimony in Congress supporting the Keystone pipeline at a request from my International Union. I was there in a 2004 meeting with my brothers from Canada. We were meeting in Detroit discussing the Keystone pipeline project. I was there with my brothers and sisters from other private sector unions, who completed a Project Labor Agreement to build the pipeline. And, yes it was to create some 42,000 jobs across America. Try figga. We have the beginnings of creating top line jobs, with probably millions of other related jobs over time and our "From Hawaii" President Obama refuses to approve the project. Well, anyway, this is only one example because of his ideology "think green" has caused some 40 million American workers to give up looking for work. Income in-equality is when Pres. Obama takes from the low income worker and gives a raise to the other low income worker by raising the minimum wage in a struggling economy. This only cause the slightly higher income worker to lose his/her job. Stupid, huh.
on February 23,2014 | 11:41AM
1local wrote:
income equality will never happen in the USA - socialist practices encourage a low income life style for many. Instead of increasing the minimum wage - the tax liabiliy for those making less than $100,000.00 annually should be $0.00. Its not how much one makes it how much one has left...
on February 23,2014 | 07:06PM
Maipono wrote:
kuroiwaj, you really nailed it, the president talks the talk, but his actions are actually increasing the gap between the rich and poor. The fact is that the percent of people living in poverty are actually increasing in the 5 years he has been president. Companies are less likely to employ workers if they are concerned about Obamadon'tcare and what will be their future costs. Raising the minimum wage sounds nice, but like you said it causes workers to lose jobs as a result. The president has hurt the economy and is causing the gap to widen with his poor decisions.
on February 23,2014 | 08:24PM
Nevadan wrote:
The gap was evident from His Day 1 in the White House. Instead of bailing out the unemployed with jobs in national infrastructure, like what Roosevelt did in the 1930's, he bailed out the people who got us in trouble in the first place. Of course, Wall Street became much richer, and the middle class becomes poorer.
on February 24,2014 | 03:17AM
meat wrote:
The only ones that are grappling about income inequality are the Obama administration, all the democrats, and all the sheeple that buy into their B.S. As far as I know, this is the land of the free and the land of opportunity. So instead of bitching about the rich, go out there and MAKE yourself rich. The same way that the rich MADE themselves rich. Many of them risking EVERYTHING at one point with some of them succeeding and some failing, but they CHOSE to do it. On the other hand you got those who chose to do NOTHING. Chose not to go to school, chose not to work hard. So these are the very sheeple that the Dem.'s say they will fight for at the expense of the hard working people for the sake of " income inequality ".
on February 23,2014 | 12:57PM
st1d wrote:
"But Ricky's new job in financial services proves it's possible to do better if you pursue an education,"

and there is the key to the skills and knowledge inequality that leads to sliding scales of income.

as you gain experience, knowledge and improved work habits your value (income) goes up.

on February 23,2014 | 03:00PM
false wrote:
Why should there be income equality in the U.S.? Let each person strive to make the most during his lifetime, each using his/her creative talents. Income equality is similar to "no kids left behind" in that the government feels we should all be equal regardless of whether some are more advantaged than others. Dumbing to the lowest common denominator.
on February 23,2014 | 03:04PM
Bdpapa wrote:
You nailed it!
on February 23,2014 | 07:49PM
glenn57377 wrote:
Excellent ! What you know, everyone should have figured it out by now. We are a capitalist nation. Each according to his or her efforts, skills and luck. Obama has turned this nation into a welfare state where there is no incentive for the poor or low income folks to work at all. Why should they? The Prez put them on the gravy train that never runs out of gravy. There is a reason rich people are rich....and poor are poor. There is opportunity out there for anyone with the initiative to make it work. To milk the middle class so that low income can equalize is sheer robbery and shows favor for specific cultures and segments of society. There is so much to be said, but people would not dare. I went from poor to middle class because of self-learned skills, education and sticking out tough situations......and I don't like it when millionaire hypocrites try to drag me down and punish me because of a huge number of lazy slugs. I have compassion for the needy........but none for the capable, but lazy needy. Injustice will not continue forever......because I believe this nation will eventually get on the right path. Our best minds are certainly not in politics. Obama is rich.....and I hope his own decisions empty his bank account due to the handouts he will have to make to people who don't want to work.
on February 23,2014 | 08:46PM
Nevadan wrote:
By definition, your last sentence said it all.
on February 24,2014 | 03:21AM
nitpikker wrote:
at one time there was pride in the "made in america" label. now there's only pride in the almighty profit margin. and one of the most glaring inequalities is the difference between a ceo's income and that of his lowest paid workers. face it, while some have earned what they have, a lot more were born, married into or inherited their wealth and position.
on February 23,2014 | 08:55PM
Bdpapa wrote:
Can't fault them for having wealth from birth. Good for them.
on February 24,2014 | 05:17AM
onevoice82 wrote:
You "are" what you strive to "be" and I don't care if your white, black, purple, born in the slums or in Kahala.
on February 24,2014 | 04:33AM
HD36 wrote:
We don't have captialism in this country. If we did, we wouldn't have bailed out the banks in 2008. If we did, we wouldn't have had QE1, QE2, and QE3. If we did, we woulnd't have bailed out AIG. If we did, we wouldn't have an artificially pegged interest rate by the Fed, allowing for unheard of speculation. What we have in America is the merger between government and big business. It's called crony capitalism or facsism. The income gap isnt' the problem. If the rich were getting richer, nobody would care if they were getting richer too. Cheap money from QE allows the rich to get their hands on it and speculate, driving up asset prices. The bottom 90% only see the effects of inflation and eroding wages. Sound money policy, fiscal rectitude, and a market price of interest rates are the only solutions. Unfortunately, government economics has made a 360 degree turn. Janet Yellen the new Federal Reserve head is a money printer in the extreme.
on February 24,2014 | 04:55AM
Breaking News