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.Next Page >
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