Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Arwin Buditom guards some of the most successful high-tech firms in America. Joseph Farfan keeps their heat, air and electric systems humming. But these workers and tens of thousands like them who help fuel the Silicon Valley's tech boom can't even make ends meet anymore. Buditom rooms with his sister an hour's drive from work. Farfan gets his groceries at a food pantry.
"It's unbelievable until you're in the middle of it," Farfan said, standing in line at the Sacred Heart Community Center in San Jose for free pasta, rice and vegetables. "Then the reality hits you."
Silicon Valley is entering a fifth year of unfettered growth. The median household income is $90,000, according to the Census Bureau. The average single-family home sells for about $1 million. The airport is adding an $82 million private jet center.
But the river of money flowing through this 1,800-square-mile peninsula, stretching from south of San Francisco to San Jose, has also driven housing costs to double in the past five years while wages for low- and middle-skilled workers are stagnant. Nurses, preschool teachers, security guards and landscapers commute for hours from less-expensive inland suburbs.
Now the widening income gap between the wealthy and those left behind is sparking debate, anger and sporadic protests.
"F--- the 1%" and other rants were spray-painted last month on walls, garages and a car in the Silicon Valley town of Atherton, home to many top tech CEOs that Forbes magazine last year called the nation's most expensive community. In Cupertino, security guards rallied outside Apple's shareholder meeting on Feb. 28 demanding better wages. "What's the matter with Silicon Valley? Prosperity for some, poverty for many. That's what," read their banner.
Farfan, 44, a native of the valley, said he figured he must be mismanaging his $23-an-hour salary to be struggling with what seemed like a decent paycheck. But when he met with financial counselors, they told him there was nothing left to cut except groceries because rent, child support and transportation expenses were eating away the rest of his money.
Buditom, also 44, said the reality of working for some of the nation's richest companies has sapped his belief in the American dream. For the past four years, he has been living in his sister's apartment, commuting an hour in stop-and-go traffic for a $13-an-hour security job.
"I'm so passed over by the American dream, I don't even want to dream it anymore," said Buditom, who emigrated from Indonesia 30 years ago. "It's impossible to get ahead. I'm just trying to survive."
From the White House to the Vatican to the world's business elite, the growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else is seizing agendas. Three decades ago, Americans' income tended to grow at roughly similar rates, no matter how much they made. But since about 1980, income has grown most for the top earners. For the poorest 20 percent of families, it has dropped.
A study last month by the Brookings Institution found that among the nation's 50 largest cities, San Francisco experienced the largest increase in income inequality between 2007 and 2012. The richest 5 percent of households earned $28,000 more, while the poorest 20 percent of households saw income drop $4,000. To the south, Silicon Valley's success has made it a less hospitable place for many, said Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, an organization focused on the local economy and quality of life.
"We've become a bifurcated valley, a valley of haves and have-nots," Hancock said. "The economy is sizzling any way you slice it, and it's about to get hotter. But having said that, we are quick to point out there are perils to our prosperity."
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