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March 9, 2014

Silicon Valley boom eludes many, drives income gap

NORMAN — 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, also has 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, sometimes 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. 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.

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