It goes nearly without saying that Silicon Valley is rife with hypocrisy, but perhaps the greatest example of this is the area’s blatant wealth disparity. While the Bay’s business titans in glittering towers plot to innovate and code their way to an early retirement, millions exist on the fringe of that gold-tinted society. It is, in essence, a new Gilded Age. For an area that so consistently votes liberal and claims to be doing so much good, the amount of poverty on display is truly appalling.
Stanford students who take the Caltrain to the San Francisco station can’t walk around in the SOMA neighborhood for more than a few minutes before stumbling upon entire settlements of tents, filled by the city’s pariahs. Closer to campus, a single freeway is the dividing line between Palo Alto, one of America’s most expensive suburbs, and East Palo Alto, where the per capita income is some $50,000 lower.
This hypocrisy is heightened by the Bay Area’s façade of altruism. Despite the blatant poverty, CEO’s build massive corporations on the false notion of social consciousness while residents gladly spend eight dollars on a cup of “free trade” coffee. San Francisco has even been labeled the best city in America for activists by the real estate site mynewplace.com, but despite its litany of anti-Trump, pro-LGBTQ and anti-tech causes, the city does relatively little to combat its obvious crisis of wealth disparity and poverty.
Sadly, numbers only reinforce these images. San Francisco has, by varying metrics, anywhere between the eighth and first highest percentage of homeless residents in the nation, while San Jose generally also falls in the top 10. Under normal circumstances, this would perhaps be understandable. However, San Francisco is, tellingly, the second–richest large city in America, based on Gross Metropolitan Product per resident. San Jose is first.
In 2016, it was reported that the city of San Francisco has only 1,339 shelter beds for a homeless population that numbers well over 10,000. Even more appalling is the situation for the city’s children – roughly one in 25 school-age youth are homeless, and in some inner city districts (SOMA and Tenderloin chief among them), that number rises to as high as one in five. Despite the economic boom that the region as a whole has experienced, those numbers have nearly tripled since 2009.
Government intervention has not answered this problem. San Francisco spends some $200 million annually to combat homelessness, to little effect. Meanwhile, San Francisco and Berkeley are ranked first and second on the list of America’s most liberal-leaning cities. But despite that critical mass of progressive voters and the plethora of municipal initiatives, few legislative acts have proved to be successful in combating poverty.
The solution, then, lies only with private individuals and their charitable habits. After all, it’s not as though the region has a shortage of capital. Just last year, Stanford’s own Santa Clara county experienced the nation’s highest job growth rate at over 5.4 percent. Nonetheless, 800,000 people in the Bay are still living under the poverty line.
Additionally, the Bay Area is home to as many ultra-wealthy people as anywhere on Earth. Combined, San Francisco and Silicon Valley have more billionaires than any other city, barring New York. More locally, Palo Alto has been labeled America’s wealthiest city with at least 65,000 residents.
Although much of this moral burden rests on the shoulders of the industries and businesses that dot the Bay landscape, Stanford and its students have an obligation to fulfill as well. All too often, our student body wants to change the big picture issues – and for good reason. By focusing on the macro-level, however, students dismiss the painfully obvious plight of the Bay Area’s less fortunate.
Earlier this month, Stanford Dance Marathon raised some $110,000 for the Lucile Packard Children’s hospital. This is an amazing accomplishment and one that, in the grand scheme of things, should not in itself be criticized.
But with that being said, we have to look at the facts. The beneficiary hospital was originally built on a $110 million donation. It is also currently in the midst of a $1.2 billion injection and remodeling.
To be fair, DM’s donations were not going directly to the hospital, but rather to a fund for families that cannot afford treatment. However, given the massive war chest with which Stanford medicine operates, the burden falls on them as well to fund these sorts of charitable ventures. $110,000 is about 1/10,000th of their current building budget; it’s not a stretch to suggest that our medical school could use its own funding for these purposes and allow DM to put its proceeds to greater use.
The scope of these numbers makes Dance Marathon’s donation so small as to be nearly pointless. Under nearly any other circumstances, the money Dance Marathon raised would be an enormous amount. But by donating it to an operation that is so flushed with resources already, the group fails to maximize their potential for relieving the less fortunate.
More egregiously, the past four years saw 100 percent of the funds raised by Dance Marathon go to Rwanda. Now, I would never want to take away or detract from any well-intentioned charitable endeavor, but it is worth repeating that as members of the greater Bay Area community, we have an obligation to worry about our neighbors first. Yes, Rwanda needs and deserves international support, but more pressingly, there are people in our own backyards whose very existences are threatened by the pitfalls of poverty.
How would it feel personally if you, a minimum wage-earning nighttime janitor, slaved away to maintain the campus sheen while students danced to send money across an ocean? The juxtaposition of it all is morally unacceptable.
And while the example of Dance Marathon is certainly poignant, it’s far from the only one of its kind. Dozens of different groups and organizations on this campus try to solve the world’s problems before focusing on those of their own community. While their intentions may be noble, we all need to reconsider where we direct our charitable efforts. The resources exist, both at Stanford and throughout the Bay, to help our neighbors out – it’s only a question of choice.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.