It’s been a while since I last visited California’s Silicon Valley. In fact, it was long enough ago that I recall being overwhelmed by just how much more rapidly the “.com” boom had taken root there relative to my Midwestern home. Even then, though, one of the most striking parts of my visit was the contrast between rich and poor. I recall driving up and down Highway 101, feeling pretty inadequate in my rental car. Beautiful glass-covered buildings flanked the highway, and the import car dealers seemed to have discovered a brand new California gold rush.
Yet, when I drove a couple blocks from the highway, I felt as if I might have wandered into another country. The transition to run-down shops and old cars made quite an impression on me. I even picked up a local paper to check out the real estate market — including rentals — because I recall wondering how some of these people were able to make a go of it when prices in general seemed rather high, and real estate prices were screaming skyward.
I was a little disappointed to see an article this morning, then, on smartplanet.com hinting that not only had this problem not gotten any better, but may very well have gotten worse. California, over the last 30-40 years, has done great things in leading the United States forward in areas of environmentalism, technology, and progressive social attitudes, but to see it now leading the way in economic segregation is truly sad.
Paradoxically, I believe the “new economy” of Silicon Valley may be contributing as much as anything else to this problem. When it comes to wealthy getting wealthier, it’s difficult to extract cause and effect, but I believe that education might be the single biggest factor affecting the success of individual workers. Silicon Valley’s economy is as nearly a pure information economy as you’ll find anywhere, and it’s fueled by smart, well-educated workers. It’s not just the wealthy getting wealthy there — it’s the smart (and educated) who are getting wealthy, and uneducated workers are left behind to fend for themselves.
Inasmuch as this is true, I think we can draw some pretty compelling conclusions not only for California, but for the rest of the United States, as well:
- If you’re a parent or a student, pay attention! Skimping on your education is nothing short of career suicide. ‘Nuff said.
- Citizens in other parts of the country should take a good look at California. The problems you’re already seeing wherever you are not only aren’t going away on their own – they’re probably going to get worse.
- As a nation, we should be worried about financial segregation. Generations before us tackled racial equality and gender equality, and even though there’s still work to be done in these areas, we’ve made progress. I’m not going to offer a solution here, but it’s time we acknowledged the problem.
- If I’m right about education (and you know I am), then improvements to our educational system are among the most strategic investments we (as a nation) can make. Not only should we see individual workers able to elevate themselves, but we’d also expect to see stabilization of wages for non-skilled workers as fewer people chase falling wages.
I believe we’ll continue to see problems like this. These problems are not anomalous, they’re not trivial, and they’re not going away on their own. What do you think needs to be done about economic stratification?