Income inequality in America: How do we fix it, should we try, and what is government's role?

By Adam Geller

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Feb. 2 2014 7:00 a.m. MST

"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.

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