There are often two conflicting stories that are equally true.
We’ve all seen these word bites of late: Growth and overall economic confidence are at an all-time high. Unemployment rate falls to its lowest in 50 years. Productivity is rising. The labor market continues to tighten. US wage growth is strengthening.
It’s also true that the number of job-seekers who’ve given up the search for employment are at an all-time high; the number of part-time workers who’d rather be working full-time is increasing. And 14.1 percent of Americans are poor, as defined by the supplemental poverty measure.
The economy is booming and at the same time poverty is decimating lives.
This conflicting scenario is even more acute in California — the highest producing state in the United States, and the fifth largest economy in the world — where the poverty level is at a whopping 19 percent . One in five people in California are struggling.
Latest census figures places California at the top of the heap for the dubious distinction of having the highest number of people facing economic hardship. “California has 7.5 million residents living in poverty,” said Sara Kimberlin, senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center. “This is striking because the economy is improving, yet so many residents are struggling,” she emphasized.
San Francisco, too, is the staging ground of extremes. Homeless people sit slumped over on streets close to Twitter where, according to Glassdoor, the average software engineer makes $124,871 per year.
A family of four earning $117,00 per year — a perfectly respectable salary in Montana — is classified “low income” in San Francisco by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Two-thirds of San Francisco families are living a low-income lifestyle. Yet, The City is host to the third-most number of billionaires (74) of any city in the world.
Artists are fleeing. Mental illness is an openly visible wound. Immigrants are having to justify their value over and over again. Technology innovators are getting a bad rap and renters are overwhelmed by the cost of living in San Francisco.
Housing costs played a significant role in state poverty levels, according to Esi Hutchful, state policy fellow at California Budget and Policy Center. “The average share of income on housing is at 30 percent. Nearly half spend half of their income on housing and housing costs are rising while earnings are not keeping pace at the same level,” he said.
San Francisco’s scorecard shows that older residents are more likely to experience poverty; women are poorer than men; and three times more black and African American residents experience poverty than others.
“I’ve been high, I’ve been low, I’ve been yes, and I’ve been oh, hell no! … won’t you save me San Francisco?” crooned Train in 2009. The San Francisco landscape has changed even since those days. Can San Francisco save anyone anymore?
So, who is San Francisco for? I put this question to a black Uber driver. “Not for me,” he answered. “I’m biding my time till I get out of here.” He told me that he was one of the lucky ones. He had inherited his home from his parents, but two of his three children couldn’t quite reconcile who they were in the city they were born in and so they moved, one to Houston and the other to Charlotte. He told me he was thinking of selling his home in San Francisco and moving, once his youngest daughter graduated high school. “Black faces aren’t common here anymore,” he remarked.
The City is growing more diverse in some ways and less in others. One in seven San Francisco residents was black in the 1970s, and one in 20 in 2016 with stories of more fleeing every day.
The tech industry is shaping and configuring who lives in San Francisco, what we do, and how we do it. Since technology is overwhelmingly the domain of Asians and whites, 89 percent of San Francisco is Asian or white.
However, this demographic skewing of computing skills is not evident among children. Research done by Google in 2016, looking into the “demographic inequities” in K-12 education in America found that black students are 1.5 times more likely to be interested in learning computer science than white students, but blacks have less access to computers and Computer Science classes. This explains why only 10 percent of graduates with Computer Science degrees in 2015-16 were black.
Even as we in the Bay Area tout our achievements as the global center for high technology, we are disempowering particular communities by not providing them ready access to technology resources.
Interestingly, the Uber driver mentioned that his youngest daughter was keen to learn tech skills. Let’s hope then that she has access to computer classes, learns programming, and persuades her family to stay put.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan