Get the best stories to your readers as they happen. The Washington Post News Service streams breaking news, enterprise and features with photos, graphics and video directly to you.

A liberal entrepreneur sets out to help West Virginians - and gets a lesson in humility

By Jennifer Miller
A liberal entrepreneur sets out to help West Virginians - and gets a lesson in humility
In West Virginia Joe Kapp had a new mission, but as he initially saw it, it was simply an extension of his previous work helping LGBTQ couples and businesses find financial security. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti

On a sunny day last October, Joe Kapp ducked out of the fresh afternoon air and into the ammonia stench of an industrial chicken house. He followed Josh Frye, the owner, into the crush of 30,000 scuttling, chirping and crapping chicks, just 10 days old and still downy. Frye has three such houses here in Wardensville, West Virginia, each the length of 1 1/2 football fields, and he walks them three times a day, nearly 300 days a year. He adjusts the temperature and ventilation, checks the water feeders and gauges the flock's health.

"I'm in awe of this," Kapp said as birds scooted out of his path.

"You get a run of emotions from visitors," said Frye, 52. "From awesome to disgusting."

After the first time he visited Frye's farm, Kapp had come home with his boots smeared in chicken poop. "Joey, what have you been doing?" asked Carlos Gutierrez, Kapp's partner of 25 years. And Kapp answered, "Honey, you don't even want to know."

When Kapp, 47, an entrepreneur, and Gutierrez, 46, an entertainment lawyer, decamped to a West Virginia cabin in 2012, industrial chicken houses were not on the agenda. They'd come to take professional sabbaticals. But Kapp, who has a restless energy and an insatiable drive to make things happen, had barely settled into his Adirondack chair when he befriended the forward-thinking president at the local community college. From there, it wasn't long before he was helping the college to launch an innovative project, the Institute for Rural Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (IREED), aimed at diversifying the regional economy of West Virginia's eastern panhandle. Over the past two years, Josh Frye had become one of IREED's most promising clients as he tried to develop his chicken farm into something much more ambitious: an innovative business with wide-reaching economic and environmental potential for the state.

And yet, determined as Kapp was to help West Virginians like Frye, he was initially blind to the challenges of such a project - not just the systemic obstacles that have kept West Virginia from adapting to a rapidly evolving economy, but the personal roadblocks he would encounter as an affluent, liberal urbanite living in a rural culture he didn't understand. He would eventually find himself the object of a vicious online campaign, targeted with homophobia and maligned as an arrogant carpetbagger. But easy as it might be, especially in the Trump era, to write off this response as pure bigotry and partisan ignorance, Kapp took another perspective.

"I had to take some time to muck around in chicken s---," he says. "I learned humility. If we can drop our sense of 'we know best,' that animus that I have been the target of doesn't need to be there."

Kapp has become an unlikely advocate for rural communities and their largely conservative, working-class populations. He believes this demographic has far more potential than they are given credit for. They deserve economic self-determination, he says, not empty promises to revive dying industries. He is certain that by harnessing local knowledge, like agriculture, they can start businesses and put their own people back to work.

At the same time, Kapp knows that urban partners are vital to helping these communities access resources and take entrepreneurial risks. Which creates a problem: At a moment when our country is increasingly divided, convincing West Virginians to trust the liberal, urban elites who have long maligned them isn't easy. No less simple, Kapp has discovered, is getting these elites - himself included - to recognize their own shortcomings.

---

IREED is headquartered at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College, a modest, two-story building overlooking the new Corridor H highway. These days, it's a 20-minute jaunt from Wardensville. A few years ago, the only option was a two-lane road, often backed up by slow-moving chicken and coal trucks. Then, the same drive could take an hour. Only part of Corridor H is open now, but when finished, the 148-mile thoroughfare between Virginia's Shenandoah Valley region and central West Virginia will serve as a badly needed conduit for workers, goods and visitors.

Many people in the Potomac Highlands, the six-county region that Eastern serves, commute. Wardensville residents might drive between 30 and 70 miles to work each way because there aren't jobs closer to home. Those who do work locally gravitate toward poultry processing, furniture manufacturing and agriculture, but the numbers aren't good.

In 2015, the unemployment rate in Hardy County, where Eastern is based, was 7.5 percent, compared with 6.7 percent statewide and 5.3 percent nationally. The per capita income in Hardy was just under $28,000 a year, compared with about $37,000 for the state and $48,000 nationwide. The Appalachian Regional Commission may not categorize Hardy County as economically "distressed" like the southwestern part of the state, but it falls somewhere between "transitional" and "at-risk." It's not surprising that so many young people are opting to leave the state.

Lindsey Teets, Eastern's small-business development coach, lamented this fact one afternoon in July. "Ninety percent of the kids I talk to at local high schools say they can't make any money here," he said. "To me, that's heartbreaking." Teets grew up in West Virginia and, in addition to his job at the college, runs a 200-head sheep farm with his father. On this day, he and Kapp were driving out to visit a small brewery whose revenue Teets had helped double over the past year. "Quite frankly," Teets continued, "there's almost nothing you can't do from anywhere now."

"Assuming you have broadband," Kapp scoffed. Halfway to the brewery, he knew, they'd lose service.

"Before the 1930s, Appalachia didn't have electrification," Teets said. "And today we don't have internet. It's the same problem."

Kapp shook his head. "You've got kids doing their homework in McDonald's parking lots. People in most of the country just have no idea."

Growing up, Kapp certainly didn't. He was raised in a middle-class North Miami Beach community, attended high school with the likes of author Brad Meltzer and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and received his master's in government administration at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduate school, he taught himself to code and bounced between companies, including a large tax-audit firm and a corporation that did sales force automation. By 26, he was working with major clients such as Johnson & Johnson and ExxonMobil.

But Kapp wasn't happy. He didn't just need a more fulfilling job - he needed a mission. This hit home one weekend when a Ford Explorer crashed into his car and propelled it into oncoming traffic. Kapp walked away without serious injury but determined to change his life. He quit his job and fled to the Tibetan Plateau, near the Himalayas. On his journey he kept thinking about Gutierrez, his longtime partner and the primary stabilizing force in his life. Inspiration struck: He decided he would help other gay couples achieve a similar stability. In 2006, he co-founded a D.C.-based financial and estate planning practice focused on LGBTQ couples and, a few years later, helped build the Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce out of a previously existing nonprofit.

Before arriving in West Virginia, Kapp had only one experience at a community college: a summer biology class he and Gutierrez took for extra college credit. They treated it like a joke. While dissecting a fish, Kapp scooped out an eyeball and dropped it in the animal's stomach. "Look!" he told the professor, thinking himself quite clever, "it's an introspective fish!"

So when Kapp volunteered to teach an entrepreneurship course at Eastern in 2012, it was mainly out of boredom. He hardly considered it a real job; the college could barely pay. "When you think of the way that community colleges have been viewed, it's sort of like the redheaded stepchild of education," Kapp told me. He now considers this ironic, because after completing an undergraduate degree in economics from Florida State University, he initially couldn't get a job. "After Hurricane Irma, the people who were climbing the poles and fixing the lights were the people getting their trade skills at a community college," he says. "It's unlikely you could take somebody from an Ivy League college and have them climb a pole after a hurricane."

At Eastern, Kapp was impressed by his students' enthusiasm and was surprised to learn that some of them, along with a number of staff members, had side hustles to make ends meet. "People in big cities call the 'gig economy' the new thing," Kapp says. "But it's been in rural communities forever. 'I'm a ditch digger, but I've got a vegetable garden market going.'" What they lacked, however, were the kinds of small-business development resources typically found in cities. Kapp believed Eastern, with its small size and lack of red tape, could be a hub for just that.

Chuck Terrell, Eastern's mustachioed, tattooed president, was amenable; getting students to enroll had been a struggle, and he'd been looking for ways to engage the broader community. West Virginia's community college system is just over a decade old and has some of the lowest enrollment rates in the country - only about 10 percent of high school graduates, compared with 50 percent of graduates nationwide.

But the kind of economic development that Kapp had in mind wasn't part of community college culture. "That's more of a four-year college role," says Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education. According to her and Terrell, community colleges largely put people to work by developing short-term training programs to meet the needs of specific employers. This January, for instance, Eastern will begin teaching industrial-maintenance courses to train potential hires for a manufacturing company called Automated Packaging Systems. The college's welding program also has an agreement with the Ironworkers Local Union No. 568. Students who complete the program are guaranteed an interview and can earn credit toward becoming fully skilled pipe welders.

Some community colleges have partnered with major corporations looking to hire many hundreds of workers. But that's not possible in low-density areas like the Potomac Highlands. "Everyone's talking about Amazon, but that's not the right way to talk about economic development" in a rural community, says Nathan Ohle, executive director of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, which focuses on communities of several thousand people. "That's putting all your eggs in one basket. You need to create an ecosystem that allows for small-scale manufacturing and innovators. Quite frankly, what works in urban and suburban places won't work in rural ones."

It's not surprising, then, that CNBC's 2017 report on "America's Top States for Business" ranked West Virginia 49th in three categories: workforce, technology and innovation, and business friendliness. The state's mountainous geography, its diffuse and aging population and its lack of services, including high-speed internet, make it less than desirable for big companies. It can't attract enough outside job creators to replace the 33 percent of coal mining - and coal mining support service - jobs lost since 2008. And these jobs, though temporarily holding stable, will continue a gradual decline over the next two decades, according to John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. "We have a desperate need for industrial diversification," says Deskins. "And the only way to achieve it is to foster and promote small-business culture."

In 2013, Kapp pitched Terrell on the idea of establishing an institute for rural entrepreneurship. No community college in the state had anything of the kind. Kapp helped Eastern secure a $15,000 grant from the Coleman Foundation to set up IREED. Then, at an event for the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), Eastern was offered the chance to apply for $100,000, on the condition that it raise matching funds. When he heard this, Terrell leaned over to Kapp and said, "Well, we're out. I don't have a hundred thousand in our budget." Kapp replied: "The problem isn't the money. The problem is your attitude."

"I'm a college president, and we've got a little ego at times," Terrell said later. "Internally, I was like, 'Who are you?' "

As Tucker explains, community colleges, like many West Virginians, are struggling just to survive. "We've been hit with several budget cuts in the last two years alone," she says. "So it's easy in that context to just want to tread water, just do what you're supposed to be doing in the moment, put your head in the sand. To say, 'We've been cut, we've been cut, we've been cut.' But Joe doesn't back down from what he wants to do. He's going to find a way."

Eventually, Kapp helped raise over $767,000 from a handful of private and public funders to support IREED initiatives. These included an entrepreneur-in-residence position for Kapp, which he assumed in 2014, and a Wardensville-based business incubator called the New Biz Launchpad, which opened in 2015.

Kapp had a new mission in West Virginia, but to him, it was simply an extension of his previous work helping LGBTQ couples and businesses find financial security. Though a secular Jew, he'd taken to heart a saying from Rabbi Maimonides: "The highest degree of charity, above which there is no other, is he who strengthens the hand of (the poor) ... till he is able to be independent." To Kapp, that meant helping marginalized people become self-reliant. And as a gay man, Joe Kapp knew from marginalized communities. Surely he could help the people of West Virginia.

---

Kapp did not come out of the closet until college, and when his parents learned he was gay, their primary reaction was fear. "They were really concerned that I'd be able to rely on myself," Kapp says. "They wanted to make sure that nobody would ever harm me or fire me from a job." Kapp understood their anxiety. "It's about 1989, and things were actually really, really difficult," he recalls. "You still don't have ubiquitous internet access. You're still in the throngs of the AIDS crisis, still having issues with homophobia, police raids of clubs. ... If I'd come out much earlier, my life could have been a lot shorter."

He was saved, in part, because of Gutierrez. Almost from the start, the two were exclusive. They couldn't have been more different: Kapp was a white, middle-class Jew, excitable, with a high tolerance for risk, while Gutierrez, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Colombia, was studious and cautious. But the couple found security and happiness facing a hostile world together.

After he launched his LGBTQ estate planning firm, Kapp says, some people responded with disgust. At industry conferences, people would hear about his clients and walk away. But the culture was shifting and, before long, financial planners were asking his advice about reaching an LGBTQ audience. By 2012, Kapp was managing more than $45 million in assets and had doubled the D.C. Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to over 450 members.

That same year, the couple achieved a long-held goal: saving enough money to no longer need full-time jobs. Gutierrez resigned as in-house counsel for Discovery Communications, a position he'd held for 13 years, and Kapp had sold his share of the estate planning practice. With no immediate plans, they moved to the cabin they owned in Lost River, West Virginia, a popular weekend retreat for D.C. gay professionals.

From the start, small, albeit significant, signs revealed Kapp's ignorance about the region. Agriculture is central to the Potomac Highlands economy, but Kapp never considered that farmers might be IREED's target audience. Initially, he called the New Biz Launchpad an "incubator," not realizing that most locals associated this word with chickens. On one occasion, he admitted to colleagues at Eastern that he didn't know the difference between hay and straw. After they finished laughing at him, Tina Metzer, the Launchpad's executive director, just shook her head as though to say, "You don't have any clue."

And then Kapp made the fateful decision to open IREED's New Biz Launchpad in Wardensville - a small town populated by families whose lineage reaches back generations. (Josh Frye can trace his ancestors back to the 18th century, and he lives in the house where his own father was raised.) Kapp didn't choose the location by chance. Two years before the Launchpad opened, Donald Hitchcock and Paul Yandura, domestic partners whom Kapp knew socially from Lost River, had spotted a business opportunity in Wardensville: Why not make the place - located along the road from Northern Virginia to Lost River and other points in the Potomac Highlands - a charming stop-off for weekenders and tourists? There were a few restaurants, but most of the storefronts were shuttered. So the couple purchased a handful of properties on Main Street, including a home, and opened a real estate agency and the Lost River Trading Post, an espresso-wine-craft-beer bar and crafts store. They persuaded a handful of friends and acquaintances from D.C. and Virginia to invest as well. Local and D.C.-based media noticed, and Yandura and Hitchcock became eager spokesmen for the town's revitalization.

Kapp hoped to capitalize on this momentum, using Wardensville's success as a way to pitch both IREED funders and Launchpad clients. He also bought two buildings on Main Street, where he opened the New Biz Launchpad, a student-run store and a gallery space.

"Wardensville became this petri dish of all these new creative ideas, and you had creative people like Paul and Donald and Joe, and that creates synergy," says Terrell. "When you bring together that diversity, does it create conflict? Sure it does. But that's part of a community evolving."

But Kapp didn't fully grasp how much resentment Hitchcock and Yandura were causing, nor did he realize, at least initially, how different his mission was. Yandura was hoping to play up Wardensville's "old school, authentic feel" and thereby create "something new and different and higher-end" for weekenders and tourists. They could brand it "the smallest town in America with a Main Street," he says. But for this to work, Yandura told me, they needed to persuade urbanites to visit a community "in the middle of nowhere that nobody wants to come to." Which meant overhauling a town government that the couple considered to be dysfunctional and nepotistic. "There needed to be adults at the table," Yandura says.

Locals, not surprisingly, found this attitude condescending and worried their town would become an Epcot-like attraction for city folk. "West Virginia has historically been played upon" for outsiders' commercial gain, says Lindsey Teets. "We're really leery as a people of someone coming in and saying, 'I've got your fix.' You get someone to move in here that's relatively rich, and they can buy whatever they want. They can use their money to bully (people) out."

Hitchcock and Yandura - whose tense dealings with locals became the subject of a 2017 story in Washingtonian magazine - say they were honoring the town's roots by refurbishing buildings instead of demolishing them and by filling their shops with old-timey music and decor. They point to the Lost River Trading Post, which sells only American-made and local crafts, and the Main Street Initiative, a nonprofit umbrella group they founded for Wardensville businesses. They would also go on to open a nonprofit garden market and bakery, staffed primarily by local teens. Still, many townsfolk believed the couple was obscuring a unique identity that reached back generations. Textbook gentrification. To make matters worse, the couple's development efforts were supported by the newly elected mayor, a woman who quickly lost support among some residents for the reforms she was enacting.

Kapp was easily lumped in with Hitchcock and Yandura. Some of this was stereotyping. And yet he, too, was giving press interviews, talking about how much the town had improved. He'd also befriended the new mayor, using his financial planning and auditing skills to tackle the town's messy finances. When the mayor offered him an unpaid position as head of the Wardensville Development Authority, Kapp accepted. The woman he replaced was a local business owner and sixth-generation resident.

In early June 2015, about six weeks after the Launchpad opened, Kapp learned that someone in town had started an anonymous Facebook page called Good News Wardensville. "We live in a growing, changing community," the first post read. "And ALL change is good, right? Let's find out together."

Kapp was overseas at the time and paid it little attention. But he returned home to discover dozens of posts. "Good news, Wardensville!" the anonymous administrator wrote on June 20. "It's WEST VIRGINIA DAY! And we need to celebrate our state's rich history, where for decades outsiders have come here to grab our land & resources, line their pockets & tell us what to do, all for our own good."

Kapp grew concerned. Later he would come to see that his mission - which was really Eastern's mission - was not the same as Hitchcock and Yandura's. "It's one thing to have a bunch of people come from the outside and start businesses," he says. "It's another thing to help bring communities together and create capacity and really hear about the issues." Tina Metzer, who grew up nearby, is even more blunt: "We don't bulldoze our way in."

But when Kapp first arrived in Wardensville, he wasn't working with native West Virginians like Metzer or Lindsey Teets. He was fumbling in a foreign environment, unable to understand why the Launchpad had so few clients and why everyone was so hostile. Kapp followed Good News Wardensville obsessively, trying to make sense of it all. "I felt obligated," he says. "I never wanted to do anything that would damage the reputation of the college."

Good News Wardensville ridiculed Kapp for running a "pop-up" shop at the art gallery, a popular urban concept that Kapp thought would help business owners test out their ideas. He was likened to Scrooge McDuckand Mr. Haney, the con man from "Green Acres." But there was worse. In reference to Kapp, Hitchcock and Yandura, a local man posted a photograph of a human-sized inflatable penis with a smiley face and arms. The caption read, " 'New Friends' Mascot." Someone referenced Sodom and Gomorrah. And Kapp was frequently called the "Wiz of Biz" and "Whizzy Bizzy," homophobic, "Wizard of Oz"-inspired slurs. One post about him featured an 1872 caricature of a carpetbagger. It may not have been the poster's intention, but the image had stereotypical anti-Semitic features.

Good News Wardensville racked up 756 likes, roughly 500 more people than actually lived in town. Not everyone who followed the page supported it; plenty of residents called out the anonymous administrator and his or her supporters as mean-spirited bigots. Yet critics of Good News Wardensville could be mean-spirited, too. "You are all no better than ISIS," one commenter wrote. "Just pure hate and spite," wrote another. "Join the 21st century, people."

Gutierrez watched all of this unfold with dismay. He'd looked forward to relaxing with Kapp; now he was having to manage his partner's anxiety. "Joey tried to keep a strong face about it, but it really affected him," he says. "We had (Facebook) notices set up every morning. And every time something came up, my heart would sink. It's hard to get beat up when you're trying to do good. It made me question a lot of what he was doing there and why."

Kapp insists that he never asked himself the same questions. He'd made a commitment to help the college, and he was going to follow through. "I'm a hopeful and eternal optimist," he says. "I think every entrepreneur is, because you wake up every day regardless of how bad it was the previous day and think, Today's going to be so much better."

And so, he says that when an elderly man tried to trip him at Town Council meetings - something that happened a couple of times - he'd simply step out of the way. And when someone threatened to burn down the Launchpad, he bought more fire insurance. He never posted on Good News Wardensville and, unlike Yandura and Hitchcock, he never got into shouting matches at Town Council meetings. Instead, he started his own Facebook page. He called it the Wiz of Biz - an attempt to claim, and thus defang, the slur - and uploaded a goofy photo of himself in an emerald green top hat. "The people attacking me want nothing more than to keep people in poverty and to maintain the status quo," he posted in September 2015. "They are all to (sic) happy to use fear, lies and insults to keep things the same. The result are no new jobs in WV."

Kapp and Gutierrez have both concluded that the enmity in town wasn't fundamentally about sexual orientation. "There were people who were openly homophobic, but I think the creation of the (Facebook) group was about outsiders, and the outsiders happened to be gay," says Gutierrez. "Some people who have power in the community were scrambling to hold on to it."

But this wasn't just about petty small-town politics, Kapp realized. It was about a deeper cultural fissure. As the presidential election approached, Kapp told his friends, "Trump's going farther than any of you think." "They'd laugh at me," he says. "And I said, 'I don't think you understand how frustrated people are.' And I had to stop talking to my friends, because they'd just start yelling at me."

The anonymous administrator stopped posting on Good News Wardensville in May 2016, purportedly because someone threatened to expose that person's identity. Since then, Kapp has taken a hard look at himself. He now says he never should have advised the mayor or joined the development authority, no matter how noble his intentions. He should have reached out to community organizations, such as churches, from the get-go. And he should have asked what the locals wanted and needed from the community college instead of showing up to announce what they could get.

Kapp also wishes he'd connected with Teets and Metzer far sooner. Metzer, in particular, "helped me understand what my own failures and faults were. If we're going to be successful, you have to have a greater cultural competency with the communities that we're working with."

---

Kapp can be reckless for the sake of his cultural education. In early October, while visiting a defunct coal mine with Josh Frye, he ventured to the edge of a river swooshing with toxic runoff. Between 1 million and 6 million gallons of this polluted water flowed into the Potomac every day. "If they didn't use lime dust to treat it, the Potomac would be dead," said Amo Oliverio, coordinator for Eastern's biological and environmental technology program, who was showing the men around. "Part of this place is like the surface of Mars. There's nothing."

As it turned out, Frye had a potential solution to the runoff problem - one that was less expensive and more permanent than lime dust. About a decade ago, he discovered that the special machine he'd been using to heat his chicken houses could be reconfigured to create poultry biochar: a black, sandlike substance made from chicken litter, whose chemical properties both improved deficient soil and trapped heavy metals. Biochar can be created from a variety of materials and is used in industries like agriculture and landscaping. But after reading a U.S. Department of Agriculture white paper on poultry biochar, Frye realized that it could help clean up mines, which often leached heavy metals into the surrounding environment. He buckled down, became a self-taught expert in the molecular composition of soil, and spent years talking to government agencies, universities and companies, trying to find partners and clients for a poultry biochar business. The project consumed his life and ran down his bank account.

Frye's current distributor, a fertilizer and soil amendment company called Southern Organics & Supply, says that to its knowledge, Frye is the first person to turn poultry biochar into a business. But Frye's formal relationship with Southern Organics is recent. For many years, few people took him seriously. "You got something that no one has ever produced, and it's made out of s---. And you've got to tell people how great this s--- is and make them believe it. If I go to the city," he says, "there's a lack of respect."

In 2012, the machine Frye used to make poultry biochar fell into disrepair. With no money to fix it, he was ready to give up. As a last resort, he called the Launchpad. He'd heard plenty about Kapp, of course, but he decided to withhold judgment. He had nothing left to lose. Kapp, meanwhile, says his "mind was blown" when he heard what Frye was up to. "I realized how many Joshes there are in other states, struggling for access to capital and resources."

Kapp, Metzer and Frye began meeting weekly at the Launchpad. Kapp helped Frye develop his business and reach both investors and clients, including state and federal institutions. Frye gave him a new way to think about economic diversification in the Potomac Highlands. IREED's main goal should be to help the agricultural community think of itself as entrepreneurial - "one of the biggest challenges for individual farmers," Kapp discovered. And so IREED created a centralized online marketplace, now in beta, where farmers can connect with buyers; it runs conferences where farmers scout and present new technologies; and it hosts monthly workshops with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture on topics from public relations to aquaponics to agro-tourism. As it turns out, a lot of area farms want to open their doors to weekenders and tourists - the same people that Hitchcock and Yandura hoped to lure to Wardensville. But the approach matters. "The big piece is that it all has to be locally led," says Ohle of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. "Give the community a playbook and allow them to drive that."

---

Kapp may not be a West Virginian, but he is now shouldering a lot of their indignation. At one economic development conference, an audience member questioned Kapp's decision to work with community colleges, calling them "the lowest common denominator." At another, Kapp was talking about the challenges of rural entrepreneurship, and someone countered that it was easy to drum up "a few million dollars" in business investment. The problem, Kapp says, is that elites have not invited the rural working class into their conversations. And that needs to happen, not just to achieve economic equality, but to close the cultural gap.

There's another shift happening these days, too. Since the election, Kapp says, a growing number of funders, foundations and corporations have come to him about reaching rural communities. Kapp is developing a program that will allow community colleges to offer low- or no-interest microloans, around $5,000, to aspiring entrepreneurs. These individuals would then take entrepreneurship and business-development courses at the lending college. "A bank might say, 'This guy's too risky,' " Kapp explains. "But a community college can say, 'I know this guy. We work with him. I am vetting and validating his ability to be able to pay back the loan.' "

Last fall, Kapp, NACCE and the National Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education won a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to introduce entrepreneurship education in eight community colleges across coal-mining-affected areas of Appalachia. The grant also provides curriculum resources for 28,000 K-through-12 students. The hope is that some of these students - perhaps many - will feel newly empowered to look beyond the fading economy that sustained their grandparents and parents. But, Kapp warns, they must feel supported - and respected - along the way. If not, the fissures between rural and urban, and working class and elite, will only keep growing.

---

Miller is a writer in Brooklyn. Her most recent novel is "The Heart You Carry Home."

Downsizing baby boomers face a key decision: Is it better to rent or to buy?

By Michele Lerner
Downsizing baby boomers face a key decision: Is it better to rent or to buy?
Fred Klein and his wife, Jill Klein, said they were ready to leave behind their house in Potomac, Md., to downsize and to shorten their commute, but the couple initially decided to rent a small apartment to determine whether full-time city living would appeal to them. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell

After 20 years of a car-centric lifestyle in a large house in Bethesda, Maryland, and nearly a decade of lobbying her husband, Roxanne Littner achieved her goal of moving into the District of Columbia.

"My husband was more attached to the house than I was, and wanted to stay longer, but when we had a plumbing issue and the basement flooded, I put my foot down and set a date to sell our house in a year," Littner says. "We started looking downtown at different neighborhoods and couldn't find anything we wanted to buy with 1,500 square feet or more that we liked and that wasn't outrageously expensive."

Littner and her husband, ophthalmologist Roy Rubinfeld, opted to move into an apartment in the Kennedy-Warren in Northwest Washington. They quickly discovered that the services provided and the freedom from maintenance suited their lifestyle.

"It seems to make financial sense to rent, because we don't pay high condo fees or have to pay for repairs," Littner says. "We own a second home in Italy, and renting gives us the flexibility to be gone for months at a time if we want, since we know the Kennedy-Warren staff will take care of our place in the city."

The rent-or-buy decision is more commonly thought of as a dilemma for young professionals establishing their households, not people approaching retirement. But whether it's a financially savvy decision or simply the only solution when they can't find a suitable place to buy, some baby boomers are choosing to rent an apartment downtown when they downsize.

"Many of our clients who are at or near retirement like the idea of downsizing and moving into the city or closer to the city, and they assume it will be less expensive than maintaining a large home," says Laly Kassa, managing director of financial planning at Chevy Chase Trust in Bethesda. "The reality is that it's just as expensive to move closer to the city to an area that's walkable and close to transit. Some are opting to buy, and some are opting to rent, but the decision is unique to each client."

According to a 2016 Freddie Mac survey of boomers, the majority of those 55 and older plan to stay in their homes during retirement. Among those who plan to move, one in five say they will sell their home and buy a new one, while one in 10 say they will sell their home and rent when they move. Data from TenantCloud, a property management software service, shows that nearly one-third of all urban applications are for renters over age 60.

Barbara Manard said she loved her three-story home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, but always planned to "right-size" and move downtown someday.

"I love the country and the city, and spent about two years looking at open houses in both environments," Manard says. "I eventually focused on the Cathedral Heights area in Northwest D.C. because I was attracted by the idea of aging in the city where it's easier to bump into lots of people and establish a social network. Living someplace walkable is more and more attractive to me."

Manard rented an apartment for six months while she sold her house and found the right condo to buy.

"I liked renting for a while, but eventually it started to feel like a hotel since it wasn't really mine," Manard says. "Financially, I felt it was better to have some assets in D.C. real estate, and I wanted the security of knowing my housing payment and not worrying that the rent might increase."

Although the District of Columbia definitely draws millennials, baby boomers are also moving downtown. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, there was a 3 percent jump in the number of adults ages 55 to 64 moving into D.C. between 2010 and 2015, compared with a 2 percent increase among people ages 30 to 34, and a 3 percent decline among people ages 25 to 29 during the same period.

---

Many baby boomers who think they want to downsize into a city condo are surprised that it will cost them as much to buy a condo as they would pay for a house, says Ellen Sandler, a real estate agent with Evers & Co. Real Estate in Washington.

"Some decide to rent to get the services and lifestyle they want, especially if they have enough assets to throw off enough income to pay the rent," Sandler says.

Susan Berger, Sandler's real estate partner, says rents in the city are so high that people are sometimes disappointed that the amount of space they can rent is less than expected, even though they are avoiding condo fees and maintenance costs.

Kassa says that some of her clients are "testing" city life by renting a small place in the city while they keep their large suburban house for weekends for a few years.

"For someone new to city living, it's better to rent temporarily until they decide if they really want to live there full time, and to choose the right neighborhood," Kassa says. "An important element of the decision is how much flexibility they want. If there's short-term uncertainty about the choice, or if they want long-term flexibility so they can easily move around to be near grandchildren, renting can be smarter."

Tim Hewitt, a senior wealth adviser with the Wiley Group in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, as well as a licensed real estate agent with United Real Estate in Wayne, Pennsylvania, says the first step for baby boomers is to understand their goals, such as whether they want to live near family members or buy a vacation home for future retirement use.

"After the goals are established, we can do a cost-benefit analysis and determine how much equity they have in their home, how much it would cost to sell it and how much equity they would want to put in to another house," Hewitt says. "People are often surprised by the high cost of moving to a walkable neighborhood close to or in Philadelphia, but they typically still choose to downsize because they don't want the space in their suburban house, and they want the city lifestyle."

Although clients want to know whether renting or buying offers a better return on their investment, Kassa says, no one can know that with certainty until after the fact, because it depends on real estate and stock market fluctuations.

Fred Klein and his wife, Jill Klein, said they were ready to leave behind their house in Potomac, Maryland, to downsize and to shorten their commute, but the couple initially decided to rent a small apartment to determine whether full-time city living would appeal to them.

"Within three days of moving into a one-bedroom apartment in the Kennedy-Warren, we decided we loved it," says Fred Klein, a lawyer with DLA Piper Global Law Firm in Washington. His wife is a professor at American University.

The couple eventually sold their house and moved into a larger apartment in the same building.

"We worked with our financial planner at Chevy Chase Trust to project the cost of buying a condo versus renting, and we felt that the flexibility of renting outweighed the negative financial aspects, such as the absence of tax benefits and paying high rent," Fred Klein says. "We're planning to renew our lease again for a year or two because we don't think we can get the great location, size and comfort level of what we have now without spending a ton of money."

---

Hewitt says that 80 percent of his clients don't want to rent because they don't want to lose control over their home to a landlord and don't want the possibility of paying higher rent in the future.

"Those clients that choose to buy tend to make a large down payment or buy with cash from the equity from the sale of their home. and then try to cover their property taxes, insurance and maintenance costs with their Social Security or pension income," Hewitt says. "They can use their investment income for discretionary spending."

The 20 percent of Hewitt's clients who are open to renting can often find more rental properties in the city than condos.

"Financially, real estate historically appreciates about 3 percent per year, while the stock market appreciates nearly 10 percent annually," Hewitt says. "So renters have an opportunity to invest their cash in the market. Renting can be particularly good for people with a smaller portfolio of investments, because they can use the equity from the sale of their property and grow it for a more comfortable retirement."

Renting in the city offers the advantage of convenience, without requiring a large cash investment or mortgage, says Joe Edgar, chief executive of Tenant Cloud. In addition, renters avoid the expense and hassle of home maintenance.

"Renting an apartment can be the equivalent of buying an RV for retirees so they can take advantage of the flexibility and move to a different city every year if they want," Edgar says.

Kassa says that for baby boomers who don't need that flexibility, buying a place can be a good decision because they can renovate their new home, hold onto it as a long-term investment and avoid the risk of rent hikes.

"There's no right or wrong answer - you just need to line up the choices and decide what works for you psychologically and financially," she says. "I do encourage people to take their time with this decision and to rent temporarily if they are uncertain about their choice of where to live."

Some homeowners are uncomfortable with the idea of renting, but when Kassa runs the numbers comparing a rental and buying a condo, they sometimes realize that renting is the better choice. She says about 30 percent of her clients rent when they downsize.

"Most of our clients opt to sell their house first and then figure out where they can get the lifestyle they want, either in the city or Bethesda," Sandler says. "The ones that rent tell us they haven't seen anything to buy that excites them, so they will just wait and make a more permanent decision later."

Depending on where your current house is located, you could decide to keep it and rent it for income. Hewitt says that renting your home can be challenging because there's not significant demand for large and expensive single-family home rentals.

"You often can't get enough rent to cover the costs of a large house," Berger says. "And almost no one wants to be a landlord."

Berger says people who are downsizing are looking for a lifestyle change and want to get away from maintaining a home.

"Most of my clients want to simplify their lives," Kassa says. "Some of them may keep their suburban house for little while, until they make a final decision on where to live, and then they opt to sell it."

Kassa recommends investing in a real estate investment trust (REIT) or a multifamily unit rather than trying to generate income from a single-family home. But Edgar says some people want to keep their home for both income and future appreciation, and choose to rely on property management companies for tenant screening and maintenance tasks to reduce the burden of landlord duties.

For most baby boomers, downsizing to the city is a discretionary move that can take years to accomplish, Sandler says.

"There's no urgency to this, so you should take your time to make sure the smaller space will work for you and that you're getting the services you want, whether it's a condo or a rental," Berger says.

---

Tips for baby boomers moving to the city:

-- Start getting rid of things a little at a time to prepare for downsizing.

-- Imagine yourself living in various locations to prepare yourself mentally for the move.

-- Evaluate your health conditions and estimate whether you will need to move to an assisted-living facility within a few years.

- Decide whether you want to live near family members and, if so, whether they plan to stay in the same area for the foreseeable future.

-- If you plan to move again in five years or less, renting is usually the better option.

-- Consider making a temporary move to a rental before deciding on your next permanent home.

-- Compare the cost of renting with the cost of buying, keeping in mind that the tax advantages of buying could be less important in retirement if you have fewer itemized deductions.

-- Make sure you carefully evaluate the design of your new place so that even if it's small, there isn't wasted space.

-- Check pet rules and other rules of apartments and condos to make sure you can live with them.

Conversations in 50 states plus DC - and their unifying themes

By No Author
Conversations in 50 states plus DC - and their unifying themes
Michele Shultz, 50, of Charles Town, W. Va. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount

In the year since President Donald Trump's inauguration, Washington Post photographers set out to explore what unites Americans. What values and beliefs are shared in a country often described as polarized? In 102 conversations, two in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., we asked people to contemplate what it means to be American in this time of upheaval and rapid change.

Together, their interviews reflect the core beliefs and values that connect Americans to their fellow countrymen and women. And they reveal commonalities and convictions that bridge geography, gender, occupation, race or religion - an indication that perhaps what unites Americans to one another is as powerful as what divides them. There were seven unifying themes reflected most prominently in our collection of American stories. They represent a provocative and surprising atlas of the country's values - one that paints a complex picture of what it means to be American at this moment in history.

For this project, we used the most recent census data to assemble a group of Americans that closely resembles the overall U.S. population in terms of gender, race, age and class. We included the same mesh backdrop in each portrait to create a unifying element in 102 different locations.

---

Freedom

We are equals, united by our freedom to say what we want and go where we please. Sixty-four of the 102 we interviewed pointed to the United States as the land of the free and said they believe most Americans hold dear the individual freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That fundamental principle of democracy was cited more than any other as a value that unites Americans; 19 people expressed it as the foundational value of the country. Many people in this group brought up freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which, several noted, includes the right to disagree with each other.

Michele Shultz, 50, of Charles Town, West Virginia, is married and has two sons, 9 and 21. Last year, after being a stay-at-home mom, she returned to work, at a vintage furniture store. "What's important to me is family. And trying to keep everybody together. You know I'm trying to raise my boys in a Christian household . . . to grow up to be respectful men and polite . . . to understand that it doesn't matter if you're black, white, green, blue."

But, she says, "Football players not standing for the pledge, that's disgraceful to me."

Yvette White, 50, of Scottsdale, Arizona, is a body spray painter. "We all want to live a life in peace. A life in comfort, to have opportunities that other countries aren't blessed with. And we want to all be treated with respect."

"There are differences that you know you face as an African American in America. But overall it has been absolutely free for me."

Yoyo Ferro, 31, of Atlanta, Georgia, moved to the city about six years ago from Brazil, "a place full of corruption. It was hard to be proud of where I was from." Here, "you can live life the way you want to be. Nobody is imposing anything toward you. But at the same time, everybody should have equal rights for everything."

"I feel like there's something that's missing right now that would unite us eventually, and it's patience . . . also [being] open-minded. Really listen to the other side."

---

Community and empathy

We are united by a capacity for empathy and flourish when we come together to help each other. Fifty-nine of those interviewed brought up this idea. They value a sense of togetherness built from compassion for others and believe most Americans share that notion. Seventeen of those people discussed community and empathy as the traits most essential to the American character. Many recalled a sense of unity in the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and pointed to an outpouring of aid after recent hurricanes. In all parts of the country - from rural towns to big cities - people described a yearning to feel connected. Who was included in their concept of community, however, varied widely.

Andrew Castro, 31, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, grew up in Los Angeles and moved here to take care of a sick grandmother. A culinary school graduate, he's a chef and a new father. Family is key, he says, and "just putting in everyday work and becoming a part of the community, just everybody thriving on each other."

"I believe that we all can help each other out and that we're all here for the bigger picture," he says. "One person's dream helps the other."

Annie Tran, 30, of Haiku, Hawaii, works in an organic deli and surfs whenever she can. Her parents are Vietnamese; her father fought for South Vietnam in the war. "I think that it's important to try to understand one another. You know it's easy to let all those other things get in the way - those things that we don't agree on - to divide us.

"We're all ultimately trying to fight for the same things. You know I think we all want to be happy. We all want to feel safe and protected. And feel loved. All of those things that make us human."

Kevin Hollatz, 52, of Bismarck, North Dakota, is a horticulturalist and avid reader who has "gone insane in my yard." Married, with two sons, he likes the solitude where he lives. "We're one of the most charitable nations . . . but let's just admit, if we did something wrong, that we did it."

People are instinctively compassionate, he says, "but we all get too caught up in 'my worldview is correct.'"

---

Faith in the country

We are united by our faith that American democracy is sturdy enough to see us through social and political disruption. Twenty-seven of the people we interviewed expressed confidence in our system of checks and balances on governmental power; thirteen of them said it was the central conviction that Americans share. But the fewest number of people volunteered that they have faith that the founding principles of our government and the rule of law will hold fast. Those who did ranged in age from young adults whose faith has not yet been tested to those who have lived through other eras of upheaval, such as the Vietnam War and the fight against segregation. And people born outside the country pointed out that Americans live relatively safe lives, free of war, displacement and famine.

Ivan De La Torre, 26, of Los Angeles, California, was born in San Diego and moved with his Mexican-born mother and stepfather to Phoenix, "where the problems started. I believe in expressing yourself. I do it with my tattoos. I do it with my speech. It seems like for that state, my way of being was just not the right way of being. Especially if, well, I'm homosexual."

Now he lives in a homeless shelter in Los Angeles and works at Whole Foods. "I'm just trying to better myself. You have to work to have what you want, to live a good lifestyle. You can go out without fear."

Ginny Oliver, 97, of Rockland, Maine, still goes lobstering three times a week with her son Maxwell. "We sell them at the Spruce Head Co-op because that is where we get our fuel and our bait to put on the traps. Rockland was always a good place to grow up in, you know. There weren't no gangsters.

"I had three boys and one daughter, and they all turned out wonderful. They're all good to me and live near."

Blake Smith, 21, of Sykesville, Maryland, is a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. "I can tell you right now in some countries some females don't get to go to school. I love America and there are people out there that love America as well, and that's what is ultimately going to unite us in the end."

"Maybe if we go back to our roots, where there wasn't that much technology and TV and this obsession with 'let me get the new gadget' and sort of go hang outside with neighbors . . . things will get better."

---

Diversity

We are a nation of immigrants and are united by our pride in that fact. Fifty people talked about the concept of America as a melting pot and beacon of hope. They embrace people's disparate backgrounds and experiences and believe most Americans value that variety. Of the 50 people who talked about America as a melting pot, 11 said the country's diversity is the most important bond between its people - and its chief source of strength. Immigrants, many said, bring an economic and cultural vitality to America that keeps it strong.

James Davis, 33, of Las Vegas, Nevada, grew up with no indoor plumbing in rural Maine and moved to Vegas at 16. He has toured the world as a Chippendales dancer and as a competitor in "The Amazing Race." His travels to other countries have underscored this country's diversity.

"We have so many different cultures kind of melting together, and it's just inspiring that we function as well as we do. We trip, we fall down, but we always are striving . . . always to be, you know, hey, we can do this better."

Camille Walker, 33, of Farmington, Utah, is a former mortgage broker who now blogs for moms. She has four children under 10. "One of the best things about our country is the diversity. I love being part of that . . . meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures and faiths."

Many summers, her grandfather took all 21 grandkids on tours of the country in a bus. "He was a big proponent of experiencing different things. We learned a lot about our pioneer history, of LDS Mormon pioneers coming from the Mississippi Eastern America and settling Utah."

Ferial Pearson, 39, of Ralston, Nebraska, a professor and doctoral candidate in educational leadership, came to the United States at 19 from Kenya and is now a citizen. "In Islam, we believe that we have to donate a certain percentage of our income to people who need it. . . . America should be a place where everybody has their basic needs met so they can create the [needed] change in their communities without putting their lives in danger.

"America could be that way if people were willing to put their egos aside and think about other folks as a part of their family, as opposed to this us vs. them rhetoric."

Fear for the future

We are united by our misgivings about the current direction of America. Of the 102 people we interviewed, 15 people raised concerns about their own futures and those of their fellow Americans and said they believed many people share their fears. For 12 of those people, these worries were paramount in their reflections on the country. They said they didn't feel as financially secure as they had or as personally safe. They talked about intolerance and income inequality eroding the promise of the American Dream. Many said that the proliferation of social media has deepened acrimony in an already divided country, speeding up and intensifying often anonymous attacks on different groups of people.

Maryam Elarbi, 25, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a writer and recruiter for a nonprofit group. She had a "really fortunate" and "really complicated childhood in that I never felt American enough. . . . Should I be more Libyan or more American?"

Now, she sees being an American "as dealing with America for better and worse and owning the pain and suffering that this country is responsible for causing in so many parts of the world. But also acknowledging that I do have certain liberties and freedoms and taking those opportunities to challenge the current power structures in place."

Billy Clifton, 65, of Tupelo, Mississippi, paints "so I can stay sane, because a lot of stuff that is going on in this world today, you can lose your mind."

"The artwork really deals with fantasy. I'm remembering how it used to be growing up here, and the older people had the idea and mind that it took a whole village to raise a child. Things look pretty bleak right now, sad to say. You have so many people that are suffering. Sitting in a car, walking on a sidewalk, setting on they front porch - you might lose your life just going about your daily business."

Paul Seyfried, 62, of West Jordan, Utah, a father of four, got involved with self-help civil defense in the '80s and has been building and selling multi-hazard shelters and underground bunkers since 1998. "If we ever lose the grid, it will be a monumental problem for most people."

Being American is "having the choice to determine your own destiny. . . . The right to bear arms gives the average citizen the power to say no to a violent criminal or to a government." Current protests and intolerance are coming from outside agitators, he says; "Americans hold certain core values that will survive this awful period that we're going through right now."

---

Opportunity and drive

We all have a shot at making the life we want, and that unites us. That ideal of the American Dream still has a powerful hold on the imagination. Fifty-eight of those interviewed voiced a conviction that gumption and persistence can bring success. Seventeen of those people talked about opportunity as the most important value that they believe Americans share. You can go a lot farther, by working a lot harder. And by being a lot smarter; education was named by people from all backgrounds and ages as the path to prosperity. But many people noted that opportunity is not equal for all and talked about a need to recognize the barriers that exist and to remove them.

Tina Gregg, 45, of Caryville, Tennessee, owns five pawnshops with her husband. She says everyone has the same opportunities; success "depends on your drive." Divisiveness has to end.

"As an American, I have the ability to bring about my hopes and dreams. I'm allowed to open the doors of my business daily. I can walk my daughter into school. I can hold her hand and walk up the stairs to our church to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and enter without the worry of being killed."

Glynn Jackson, 51, of Houston, Texas., has been producing his Glynn Jackson Golden Scissors Awards since 1991, when he was still in the Navy. It's the Oscars of black hair, an extravaganza that showcases stylists and salons. "The core essence of America" is "turning nothing into something, where someone can take an idea and that idea can blossom into something that can be an amazing reality that you would never expect," he says. "I mean, who would think you could create a show like Golden Scissors just off of scissors?"

Sahidur Mir, 55, of Cave City, Kentucky, was an accountant and attorney in India. His wife was a literature teacher. But his dream from boyhood was to come to the United States. Even though "I didn't have any idea about this sort of thing," the family now owns the iconic Wigwam Village roadside motel. "Sometimes some people raise all kind of . . . they don't like me to be here. They're all kind of dirty talk to me. But most are very good."

"Everybody in this country belongs to Native American. And after that people come over from Europe and everywhere from the world and they started to live here, and they love this country, right? After a long time you got America. So I like to be a part of America. I've been proud to be here."

---

Responsibility to engage

We are united by our obligation to create a more perfect union. America is a continuing experiment that requires civic engagement from everyone. Thirty of those we interviewed introduced a personal responsibility to participate and said that value guided the way they live. Most, including the 13 who spoke most forcefully about this trait, said the only way to secure freedom and opportunity for all is to fight for it. All of them talked about being part of something larger than themselves, whether it was military or volunteer service or political activity, including exercising their right to vote.

Megan Hunt, 31, of Omaha, Nebraska, is co-founder of a clothing company and a single mom. A sixth-generation Nebraskan, she's running for state Senate. "We have the highest population of refugees in the entire country. I have to do everything in my power to make sure the state is a place where they can put down roots, where they can say, 'I'm an American, I'm accepted by my community, I belong here. And I contribute here.' "

"It's a country founded by dissenters and troublemakers and exiles and refugees, and as a new country, we're still going through some growing pains."

Jennifer M. Barge, 49, of Asheville, North Carolina, is a makeup artist who works with transgender women like herself to "become the best feminine version of themselves that they could be."

The country, she says, "is a work in progress. . . . There's a lot of rights, there's a lot of liberties, there's a lot of privilege. But with that . . . comes responsibility. Being an American really does mean . . . not just patting yourself on the back every four years because you made it out to vote, but actually following up."

Tom Huntley, 41, of Kodiak, Alaska, is a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who rescues those stranded in treacherous seas. He quit his corporate job after 9/11, "drawn to a patriotic duty especially to help other people. I wanted a career that had more impact and import, I guess, to our country." His wife urged him to do it and stays home with their two children to support his work.

"Helping each other is I really think what bonds us as Americans . . . desire and duty to assist one another when called upon."

---

About this story: Photos and interviews by The Washington Post's Ricky Carioti, Marvin Joseph, Toni L. Sandys, Matt McClain, Bonnie Jo Mount, Bill O'Leary, Jonathan Newton and Linda Davidson; text and editing by Ann Gerhart.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

We can’t let robots steal all our jobs

By esther j. cepeda
We can’t let robots steal all our jobs

CHICAGO -- In a world that seems in constant danger of going over the edge, why isn’t more effort going into making sure robots don’t steal every last job and leave our kids fighting, cage-match style, for whatever’s left?

Jobs are a key measure of how well the economy is ticking along, but they have become a partisan battleground.

The elites of Silicon Valley, sensing a backlash against a system in which no-wage robots toil 24 hours a day without complaint, have suggested a universal income to provide those displaced by technology with a small, guaranteed stipend for basics like food, housing and health care.

Though initial research suggests that such a universal income wouldn’t lead to laziness (and might even increase productivity by leading people to take creative and entrepreneurial risks), it’s not an idea that has caught fire.

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of the magnificent book “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus,” recently noted that the instinct for some to jump on the bandwagon for a universal income is self-serving: “[Leaders at Silicon Valley tech firms] understand the basic math undermining their long-term business plans: If they automate all the jobs, who will be left to buy their services? Even the data that companies such as Google mine from our otherwise free online activities would be worthless if we had no money to spend. The penniless have no consumer behavior to exploit.”

On the other extreme, the Trump administration ignored its own lamentation that mid-skill jobs have left for China when it issued guidance for “state efforts to test incentives that make participation in work or other community engagement a requirement for continued Medicaid eligibility” for able-bodied adults.

If it’s 100 percent true, as some research suggests, that employment is beneficial for physical and general mental health, then this would likely make Medicaid recipients less reliant on welfare in the future. It still leaves open the question of where the jobs are going to come from.

However, it’s not inevitable that automation will result in mass job loss, despite the scary statistics. (And they are scary: According to a recent report by Bloomberg and the think tank New America, nearly one-quarter of the workforce is projected to be 55 or older by 2024, and we’re smack dab in the middle of a decades-long fall in the rates at which Americans start businesses, switch jobs or move for a new job.)

Those who look on the sunny side of automation love to cite the economist David Autor’s observation that the introduction of the ATM increased, rather than decreased, the number of bank teller jobs that require more creativity and problem-solving than just counting money and making deposits.

The real problem underlying this tension is that it’s not anyone’s priority to figure out how U.S. corporations, societies and governments can work together to ensure the future holds meaningful jobs.

For their joint study, Bloomberg and New America convened a commission of more than 100 leaders in business, technology policy and academia. The resulting report, “Shift,” underscored these points about American labor:

-- The central role of employers in society has eroded, and we don’t know what will replace them -- but we need “networks of small businesses, modern guilds, worker associations, and entrepreneurship training, while at the same time facilitating new ways to administer worker benefits.”

-- “The future of work fails to align neatly with traditional political coalitions,” and “for the first time, automated systems could affect prospects for people in every demographic and skill level.”

-- We worry about millennials’ ability to forge careers, but “the fastest-growing segment of the workforce ... continues to be -- and will be for the foreseeable future -- older workers.”

-- The richest cities aren’t reflective of the rest of the country: “Commission members from noncoastal areas and smaller towns pointed to discrepancies in education, technology, access to capital and networking opportunities. Long-distance moves are on the decline.”

While it’s fantastic that a group of thoughtful experts came together to establish ideas for ensuring that the remainder of this century offers meaningful, decently paid work, it’s long past time that tomorrow’s jobs become a national priority.

One thing is for sure: We can’t let Silicon Valley and multinational corporations determine the future of our work for us.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Will Trump spark a kindness backlash?

By e.j. dionne jr.
Will Trump spark a kindness backlash?

WASHINGTON -- If you are appalled by the chaos, division and meanness of the Trump presidency, if you are tired of the lies he and his apparatchiks tell, take heart. Most of your fellow Americans feel the same way.

There is a condescending habit in the nation’s capital of seeing voters as detached and indifferent to the day-to-day workings of government.

The folks who promised to drain the swamp are guilty of a particularly pernicious form of this elitism. President Trump’s defenders regularly claim that his base is so blindly loyal that nothing he says or does will ever drive its members away.

But news from across the country should shatter these illusions. A large majority of voters, including many erstwhile Trump supporters, are rebelling. The evidence is overwhelming that Trump’s foes are as determined and motivated as any opposition in recent memory.

This message was already delivered in elections in November and December. The latest tidings are from Wisconsin, which led the way toward the style of politics that Trump exploited to get to the White House, even though he fared poorly there in the 2016 primaries.

In the rural 10th Senate District in the state’s western reaches, Democrat Patty Schachtner defeated Republican Assemblyman Adam Jarchow by an impressive 9 percentage points in a special election on Tuesday. Consider that Trump carried the district by 17 points in the presidential election (up from a 6-point margin for Mitt Romney in 2012) and that the seat had been Republican for 17 years.

It was, as my Washington Post colleague Dave Weigel noted, the Democrats’ 34th legislative pickup from the Republicans since Trump’s election. Republicans have flipped just four.

And lest anyone dismiss the importance of what happened, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who rode to power on the 2010 conservative wave, warned that Schachtner’s victory was “a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin.”

It might usefully rouse Republicans in Washington, too.

Wisconsin matters, and not simply because it was, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, one of the closely run states that gave Trump his Electoral College victory. It is also the place where American progressivism took root at the turn of the last century, but where conservatives have staged a dramatic realignment of popular sentiments over a short period.

Democrats won it in every presidential election from 1988 to 2012. Hillary Clinton’s strategists made the mistake of taking the state for granted in 2016. What they missed were trends brilliantly analyzed by Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in her prophetic book, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.” It was published eight months before the 2016 vote.

As the title suggests, the conservative resurgence Walker engineered was built on a backlash in the countryside against Milwaukee and Madison. Trump profited from the same rural and small-town discontent -- and not just in Wisconsin.

“We are in a time of increasing economic inequality and of stark policy bias in favor of the affluent,” Cramer wrote, “and yet the politics of resentment draws our attention to our animosity toward each other rather than the ways in which the political system is not working for anyone but the very few.”

But backlash politics provokes a backlash of its own, and in an interview on Wednesday, Cramer said the voters are weary of division. “Wisconsinites believe in ‘Wisconsin Nice,’” she said, “and they really dislike ‘us versus them’ politics.”

This is certainly Schachtner’s view. The chief medical examiner for St. Croix County -- Trump prevailed there by 18 points -- told The Associated Press that her victory “could be” a portent of Democratic gains, and added: “My message has always been be kind, be considerate, and we need to help people when they’re down.”

Now this would be a change of pace.

With Washington engulfed in controversy over Trump’s hate-filled comments about people from certain countries, Republicans would do well to note the costs of unkind politics.

A Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday made clear where the passion in politics lies right now. The survey found Trump with a dismal 38 percent approval rating. More significantly, only 29 percent strongly approved of his performance, while 49 percent strongly disapproved. Intensity of feeling is important to voter turnout, especially in midterms.

Predicting this November’s elections in January is, of course, a fool’s game. But failing to see the depth of the loathing for Trump is a form of political malpractice. He has given nice a chance to prevail.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

A new paean to progressivism overlooks why Americans lost trust in government

By george f. will
A new paean to progressivism overlooks why Americans lost trust in government

WASHINGTON -- Is there anything more depressing than a cheerful liberal? The question is prompted by one such, historian David Goldfield, who has written a large-hearted book explaining that America’s problems would yield to government’s deft ameliorating touch if Americans would just rekindle their enthusiasm for it.

Goldfield’s new book, “The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good,” notes that in 1964 nearly 80 percent of Americans said they trusted Washington all or most of the time; today, about 20 percent do. Goldfield does not explain why trust in government waned as government’s confidence waxed. The question contains its answer.

He rightly celebrates the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, but misses what distinguished it from many subsequent social programs. It was intended as a prophylactic measure against unemployment and political extremism among millions demobilized from the military. It worked. Veterans overwhelmed campuses; Goldfield says that some in California resided in fuselages of half-built airplanes. Eligibility for the bill’s benefits was contingent upon having performed military service. The bill used liberal means -- subsidies for veterans’ education and homebuying -- to achieve conservative results: Rather than merely maintaining people as permanent wards of government, it created an educated, property-owning middle class equipped for self-reliant striving.

In contrast, much of the Great Society’s liberalism sought to de-moralize policies, deeming repressive those policies that promoted worthy behavior. This liberalism’s political base was in government’s caring professions that served “clients” in populations disorganized by behaviors involving sex and substance abuse. Surely this goes far toward explaining what Goldfield’s narrative leaves inexplicable:

Postwar America’s political process chose Harry Truman and then Dwight Eisenhower to preserve the post-New Deal status quo. And then it chose Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, who was (rightly) viewed as hostile to the New Deal’s legacy. But just 16 years later, the electorate, whose prior preferences Goldfield approves, made an emphatic choice that he considers a sudden eruption of dark impulses that hitherto were dormant. Goldfield does not distinguish, as Ronald Reagan did, between New Deal liberalism -- of which the G.I. Bill was a culmination -- and liberalism’s subsequent swerve in another direction. And he has no answer as to why the electorate, so receptive for so long to hyperactive government, by 1980 was not.

Goldfield flecks his narrative with fascinating facts: Not until 1943 did the government remove the racial classification “Hebrew” from immigration forms. Cornell University’s president promised to prevent Jewish enrollment from making the school “unpleasant for first-class Gentile students.” When Jonas Salk, who would invent the polio vaccine, applied for a fellowship, one of his recommenders wrote, “Dr. Salk is a member of the Jewish race but has, I believe, a very great capacity to get on with people.” That we cringe is a better metric of social progress than is government spending on social programs.

Goldfield’s grasp of contemporary America can be gauged by his regret that the income tax, under which the top 10 percent of earners pay more than 70 percent of the tax and the bottom 50 percent pay 3 percent, is not “genuinely progressive.” He idealizes government as an “umpire,” a disinterested arbiter ensuring fair play. Has no liberal stumbled upon public choice theory, which demystifies politics, puncturing sentimentality about politicians and government officials being more nobly and unselfishly motivated than lesser mortals? Has no liberal noticed that no government is ever neutral in society’s allocation of wealth and opportunity? And that the bigger government becomes, the more it is manipulated by those who are sufficiently confident, articulate and sophisticated to understand government’s complexities, and wealthy enough to hire skillful agents to navigate those complexities on their behalf? This is why big government is invariably regressive, transferring wealth upward.

During his long look backward through rose-tinted glasses, Goldfield, a Brooklyn native, pines for the days he remembers, or thinks he does, when his borough was defined by its devotion to the Dodgers (who decamped to Los Angeles in 1958). Such nostalgia is refuted by information: There still are seemingly millions of moist-eyed, aging members of the Brooklyn diaspora who claim to have spent every day of every summer of their halcyon youths in Ebbets Field (capacity 31,902). Actually, in the team’s greatest season, 1955, when it won its only World Series, attendance averaged 13,423, worse than the worst 2017 team average (Tampa Bay’s 15,670). The past -- including government’s salad days, when it said it could create “model cities” and other wonders, and people believed it -- was often less romantic in fact than it is in memory.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

This way madness lies

By dana milbank
This way madness lies

WASHINGTON -- This way madness lies.

I knew that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would deny that Trump said what the whole world knows he said: that he wants immigrants from Norway rather than from “shithole” countries in Africa.

What I was not expecting was that Nielsen would raise a question about whether Norwegians are mostly white.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., displayed a poster from the dais proclaiming, in big letters, “Trump: Why allow immigrants from ‘Shithole Countries’?” An aide held the poster aloft right behind Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who, along with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., was at the infamous meeting with Trump and told others about his racist language.

Nielsen, who was also in that meeting, was now under oath, and she wiggled every which way to excuse Trump without perjuring herself: “I did not hear that word used. … I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language.”

Leahy moved on to Trump’s wish for more Norwegian immigrants. “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?” he asked, rhetorically.

“I actually do not know that, sir,” Nielsen replied. “But I imagine that is the case.”

Kirstjen Nielsen doesn’t know Norwegians are white?

Just as Nielsen “imagines” Norwegians are white, I imagine that she, in her denial of the obvious and defense of the indefensible, is the latest Trump sycophant to trash her reputation. She joins the two Republican senators, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who were in the room for the “shithole” moment but not only denied that it was said (Trump’s use of the vulgar word was widely confirmed, even by Fox News, and not denied by the White House until Trump tweeted a partial denial the next day) but also disparaged the integrity of Durbin for being truthful.

It’s clear they, like Nielsen, do this so they don’t get crosswise with the volatile president -- but in the process shred their own integrity.

Now the federal government is hurtling toward a shutdown, entirely because of the president’s whim. Democrats and Republicans presented him last week with exactly the bipartisan deal he said he would sign -- protecting the immigrant “Dreamers” while also providing funding for his border security “wall” -- but Trump unexpectedly exploded with his racist attack and vulgar word.

“This has turned into an s-show,” said Graham, who co-wrote the bipartisan compromise Trump rejected, at the Nielsen hearing.

Nielsen surely would have preferred to be in the fjords of Norway, or just about anywhere, to where she was Tuesday: facing questions from both Durbin and Graham, whose integrity she had challenged with her dubious account.

“I hope you remember me,” Durbin began acidly.

He asked how Trump had characterized African countries.

“In -- I don’t -- I don’t specifically remember a category -- categorization of countries in Africa,” she said, explaining that “there were a lot of cross conversations.”

Graham, who arrived two hours and 30 minutes into the hearing, told her that Durbin is “a decent, honest man” and that Trump was the real problem.

Graham said “something happened” to turn the president from “Tuesday Trump,” when he promised an immigration bill filled with “love” (Nielsen didn’t recall that word, either), to “Thursday Trump” with his “shithole” talk. “Tuesday we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan,” Graham said. “… I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”

For reasons unknown -- perhaps even to Trump -- the president blew up everything. And Nielsen appeared to realize her slavish defense of Trump was doing her no good. Finally, she announced that “I have nothing further to say on a meeting that happened over a week ago. I’d like to move forward and discuss ways in which we can protect our country.”

But you don’t just “move forward” after the president describes African countries as “shitholes” and proposes more white immigration. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., “seething with anger,” pounced on Nielsen for her convenient memory loss under oath and her attempt to “dismiss” questions about the episode.

“It was Martin Luther King that said there’s ‘nothing in this world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,’” Booker said. “… We know what happens when people sit by and are bystanders and say nothing.”

Do Nielsen, Cotton and Perdue see that? Or are they too far gone?

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The expanding millionaire class

By robert j. samuelson
The expanding millionaire class

WASHINGTON -- Call them the new millionaires. Once upon a time -- certainly within living memory -- becoming a millionaire was a big deal. It was a badge of economic distinction, enjoyed by a tiny elite.

No more.

By 2016, slightly more than 9 million U.S. households had a net worth of $1 million or more, according to new calculations by economist Edward N. Wolff of New York University. Of these, an estimated 1.85 million households had a net worth exceeding $5 million.

Now, go back a few decades and correct for inflation. In 1983, only 2.4 million households had a net worth of greater than $1 million. This was less than 3 percent of all households. By contrast, the 9 million in 2016 represented more than 7 percent of households. Probably most of these new millionaires consider themselves comfortably upper-middle class, not super-rich.

Indeed, it’s conceivable that 10 percent of households are now millionaires. The reason: Wolff’s study doesn’t cover 2017, when stocks soared roughly 25 percent. Most gains would have been captured by the rich and upper middle class, pushing many over the $1 million threshold, because stock ownership is concentrated at the top. The richest 10 percent of Americans own about 90 percent of the stocks.

(Note: Net worth reflects the difference between household assets -- mostly homes and stocks -- and debts, dominated by home mortgages and credit card balances.)

Wolff’s analysis -- based on data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, conducted every three years by the Federal Reserve -- has some other good news: A steep decline in the indebtedness of U.S. households.

Among the middle-class (which Wolff defines as the middle 60 percent of the population by wealth or income), average debt dropped from $98,100 in 2007 to $69,900 in 2016. Lower debt suggests that many Americans are less vulnerable to an economic slump than in the 2007-09 Great Recession.

But Wolff’s conclusions mostly confirm the conventional view of a society that is increasingly economically stratified. The Great Recession hurt almost everyone. But the upper classes have recovered faster than the middle class. It’s not entirely clear why, though the surging stock market helped upper-income households and a fall in homeownership rates -- reflecting foreclosures -- harmed the middle class disproportionately.

In any case, median household net worth was only $78,100 in 2016, a decline of a third from its peak of $118,600 in 2007. Wolff calls this the study’s most disappointing finding. There were also wealth losses from previous peaks for African-Americans, Hispanics and millennials (households headed by someone younger than 35).

It’s a sobering report. The problem is not that some Americans are better off than others. This is true now, it was true in the past, and it almost certainly will be true in the future. There have always been economic inequalities, but for many years, life got better for many people at the bottom as well as people at the top.

Now, the top seems to be pulling away from the bottom, as evidenced by the expanding millionaire class. Aside from the rising stock market, its growth seems to reflect many factors: high pay for skilled workers; many well-paid doctors and lawyers; two-earner couples among professionals and managers; family businesses (among the wealthiest 1 percent, two-thirds have income from private business).

These numbers are not reassuring, but they define the difficult political and economic task: not to bring the top down but to raise the bottom up.

(Wolff’s study is “Household Wealth Trends in the United State, 1962-2016: Has Middle-Class Wealth Recovered?”; Working Paper 24085 of the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

Can there be a charitable reading of “s---hole”?

By kathleen parker
Can there be a charitable reading of “s---hole”?

CAMDEN, S.C. -- While recently perusing unread books gathering dust on my shelves, one tome caught my eye and, upon being loosed from the grip of neglect, fell open to a random page from which leapt the following sentence: “The ancestors of a critical and growing mass of present-day Americans existed in dung heaps of humanity amidst rotting vegetables.”

Naturally, the line seemed providential -- if you happen to be a columnist.

Did he say dung heap?

Of course, the difference between “dung heap of humanity” and “shithole,” as Donald Trump recently described countries of origin for unacceptable immigrants, is about the width of a sheet of bathroom tissue. Trump’s comment has been analyzed to within an inch of its life, with most commentators concluding that this was simply another example of the president’s racist attitudes.

The book in question, “The Idiocy of Assent,” was written by F. Reid Buckley, youngest brother of William F. Buckley. As a friend for 30 years before his death in 2014, I never heard or witnessed any suggestion of racism, though he did observe cultural differences among nations and peoples as any seeing-eye human, or anthropologist, would. On the subject of cultural equivalence, he’d bat away the notion with a flick of his wrist and utter, “The Aztec pyramids were dripping with the blood of human sacrifice.”

It is only because of Buckley’s “dung heap” and Trump’s “shithole” that I noticed the similarities in their immigration views. Buckley would surely never use Trump’s word, partly because he thought insults should be more artful.

For those who slept: At an immigration meeting last week, Trump reportedly said that he didn’t know why we were accepting people from “shithole countries” such as Haiti, El Salvador and all the ones in Africa, where people coincidentally tend to have darker skin than Trump. He cited mostly white Norway as a better place from which to cull new citizens.

The inference, of course, is that Trump is pigmentation averse.

Or, racist, if you prefer. This conclusion is a low hurdle to leap given Trump’s history spearheading the birther movement against Barack Obama, as well as his having tossed racial chum to his base throughout the campaign.

When Trump’s ratings go low, his race baiting goes high.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, it isn’t necessarily racist to concern oneself at all with the qualities and characteristics of people one invites to join the American experiment. Or, is it? Shouldn’t we care about job skills, education, economic mobility, or, if you’re Buckley, a deep understanding of what it means to be a free people?

Perhaps, we are becoming culturalists rather than racists.

Buckley’s proposition, which I’m not endorsing, is that when a critical mass of people, if not yet a majority, comes to the U.S. from countries that don’t have a “heritage of doctrines of personal freedom ... along with the desire to stand tall on our [sic] own two feet,” we might easily revert to the status of “serf dependent on the lord” or, in contemporary America’s case, on Big Daddy.

Loose translation for the Trump crowd: Bring in people looking for a handout and Democrats will ruin the country.

Buckley, who spent the last third of his life running the Buckley School of Public Speaking, a modest think tank (still operating) where conferees are taught to think and therefore to speak more clearly, enjoyed debating the proposition that Americans unconsciously hanker for a king, a strongman, or a ruling elite.

He wrote: “It seems to elude us that a nation is great not because of its government but because of its people, and that there is an inverse relationship in that maxim: The greater the government, the weaker the people.”

Do you suppose this is what President Trump meant to say with his blurt?

But I jest. Such a presumption would be a charitable stretch. It may be charitable as well to presume Buckley’s better angels were at work. For within his own arguments -- and in Trump’s febrile mind -- is an implicit lack of faith in another American idea articulated by George W. Bush. Freedom isn’t a gift from us, he said, but rather God’s gift to humanity, which can be understood to mean that the yearning for liberty, independent of all other concerns, is entwined in the hearts and souls of all people, regardless of which “shithole” they were born in or from which dung heap amidst rotting vegetables America’s earliest immigrants escaped.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The sharpest pens in the industry serve up points of view to chew on.

Bury your dead-tired strips and grab something fresh, meaningful and hilarious.

Serious therapy and serious fun to give readers a break from breaking news.