By Adam Geller
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 said, 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 said.
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.
A helping hand
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,” said Mirza, the organization’s president. “You don’t see them.”
Mirza said 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.
The United States “is not a place where people can pick gold leaves off of the tree,” she said.
“In the long run, America is going to be the one which benefits from spending. It’s like an investment — in people.”
At Mount Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Va., 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 said 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 and became a teacher and eventually a principal for 24 years.
Terrell acknowledged much has changed since the Jim Crow laws of his youth, but said creating economic opportunity requires doing more. He pointed 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.
In Hinton, W.Va., haircutter Brian Cooper settles into his own barber chair, having seen his last customer of the day, though its just 3:45 p.m.
Cooper, 33, left town for college and taught school for 10 years before deciding it wasn’t the right fit. 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. 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 said.
But Cooper, whose shop sits across the street from the local office of the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program, said that while he sees the economic divide widening, he’s doubtful about government programs that try to remedy it.
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 said.