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