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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/adgeller.