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February 2, 2014

Trying to keep up: Americans grapple with income inequality

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.

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