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Associated Press
Women look for clothes at Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose, Calif. Sacred Heart expects to provide food and clothing for more than 70,000 people this year.

Silicon Valley boom eludes many, widens gap

– Arwin Buditom guards some of the most successful high-tech companies 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.

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 Feb. 28, demanding better wages.

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.

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.”

Buditom stays because he wants to be near his family who help support him. Farfan stays to be near his 9-year-old daughter; he shares custody with his wife.

“I just have to swallow my pride,” Farfan said. “You gotta do what you gotta do because in the end, pride is not going to feed you.”

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.”

Once a peaceful paradise of apricot, peach and prune orchards, the region is among the most expensive places to live in the U.S. Those earning $50,000 a year in Dallas would need to make $77,000 a year in the Silicon Valley to maintain the same quality of life, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research.

Housing costs are largely to blame. An $800-a-month, two-bedroom apartment near AT&T’s Dallas headquarters would cost about $1,700 near Google’s Mountain View headquarters. Dental visits, hamburgers, appliance repairs, movie tickets – all are above national averages.

Five years ago, Sacred Heart was providing food and clothing for about 35,000 people a year. This year, it expects to serve more than twice that. Families, working couples, disabled people and elderly have lined up out the door for free bags of food, just miles from the bustling tech campuses.

Those companies, meanwhile, are increasingly opting to build their own infrastructure and have become social bubbles, with their own child-care centers, cafes, dry cleaners, gyms, health providers and hair salons.

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