The Other Side Of Silicon Valley

There are all kinds of statistics associated with Silicon Valley. Most reflect the region's amazing New Economy affluence. Santa Clara County, for example, has 13 billionaires. Hundreds of families are worth $25 million. Some 17,000 households have $1 million in liquid assets (not counting the house). Median family income is $83,000, double the national average. These numbers are familiar by now.

But there are other, less flattering figures, too. Real wages for the bottom fifth of Valley households haven't risen for nearly a decade. Last year, San Jose's soup kitchen (yes, there is one in the heart of the Valley) served thousands of people a month, many of them employed. Housing and rental prices are up 60% over the past five years, making it harder for teachers, firefighters, the police, and many midlevel tech employees to find decent shelter. There's trouble in paradise.

And the markets for labor and capital prove it. Last year, some 13,000 more people left the Valley than arrived. High-tech companies are moving out, too. Cisco Systems Inc. is setting up a huge campus outside Boston (and near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to move some operations. Other companies in Silicon Valley are also moving out in search of lower costs and easier lives for their employees.

What to do? One solution is for people not to live in the Valley. Dispersing employees to less pricey areas would go a long way toward solving much of the inequity problem. In 1996, business groups backed a county sales tax to build a light-rail system. The sooner it gets built and connects to the Bay Area system, the sooner people will be able to find apartments and houses outside the Valley. Right now, with roads clogged with cars, people must live near their jobs. An hour or more commute by rail, fairly common in New York and Chicago, would in effect make most of the housing stock in the Bay Area available to people working in the Valley.

Dispersal on a national level should be welcomed as well. Businesses and workers have been moving around America for generations, seeking opportunities. High-tech companies are now part of that traditional wave, moving to the Northeast, the Southwest, and other areas in search of skilled employees, lower costs, and a more affordable way of life. This is good. The markets are working. In their exodus, Valley companies are seeding their magic mixture of engineering, entrepreneurship, and immigration throughout America.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.