February 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 2

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Looking forward to the 2014 ASA Annual Meeting

Hard Times and Inequality San Francisco Bay Area Style

Sheila M. Katz, Sonoma State University

This is the first article in a series in which colleagues on the Local Arrangements Committee and I will examine aspects of inequality, social activism, and policy change in the San Francisco Bay Area. The San Francisco Bay Area is composed of nine counties: San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Napa, Sonoma, and Marin. In some ways inequality in the San Francisco Bay Area is similar to inequality across the country, but in other ways, it is quite different. After New York and Honolulu, San Francisco Bay Area has the highest cost of living in the United States. According to data from the California Budget Project, two working adults with two children need $97,696 in household income in San Francisco to make ends meet Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is slightly higher at $99,342, and Alameda County, just over the Bay Bridge (including the city of Oakland), the same family needs $86,816. This high cost of living is fueled in part by skyrocketing housing costs and links with growing income inequality and high rates of poverty in our area. Making ends meet here is extremely difficult for middle-income families and almost impossible for low-income families.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Increasing Poverty and Strained Resources

Poverty in the Bay Area reached a 20-year low in 2006, but then spiked during the Great Recession. The Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality released a California Poverty Measure this fall accounting for regional differences in the cost of living. This measure, using 2011 data, found that 22 percent of families in California are poor compared with the U.S. Census estimate of 16 percent. In the Bay Area, this rate varies from a low in Sonoma County of 17.2 percent to highs in San Francisco at 23.4 percent and Napa County at 25.5 percent. Bay Area families in poverty have less access to social safety net programs and services than they did five years ago, due both to state and local cuts in those programs and as a result of reaching time limits in programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Recent cuts to the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) food stamp program hit especially hard on Bay Area low-income families already struggling with higher than average food, transportation, and housing costs. More families are seeking food assistance from area food banks, and these organizations are also struggling with decreased donations.

Over a third of home sale prices in Bay Area zip codes are above their prior peak prices; these gains are concentrated between San Jose and San Francisco along Silicon Valley.

Housing Booms, Busts, and Rebirths

Housing costs in the Bay Area are one of the most expensive in the country. In San Francisco, the median home price is just over $1 million, and in San Jose, the cost is $600,000; both areas have experienced a more than 20 percent increase in the last year. In some Bay Area zip codes, such as in San Francisco, the housing market did not necessarily “crash” in the same way many areas nationally experienced, but instead experienced a plateau or just a minor dip. However, with the technology industry’s growth, the housing markets in San Jose and San Francisco have soared in the last two years. Over a third of home sale prices in Bay Area zip codes are above their prior peak prices; these gains are concentrated between San Jose and San Francisco along Silicon Valley. In contrast, areas of Oakland, Richmond, and the suburban areas in Alameda and Contra Costa County experienced more of a crash during the recent recession, and most are not yet back to those peak prices of the mid-2000s and in some cases are still far below.

Map of the Bay Area

Map of the Bay Area (Click to View Larger Image)

Technology Resurgence

The Bay Area is experiencing another period of tremendous technology growth, focused on social media giants like Facebook and Twitter as well as Google and Apple. Technology companies are rapidly adding high-paying jobs, most requiring higher education. The current technology growth is contributing to gentrification, privatization of transportation, and income inequality. For example, these issues converge around Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, through evictions of low-income families, rising rents, redevelopment into luxury condos, and displacement of numerous nonprofits serving that community. These evictions are often based on policies from the Ellis Act and increased dramatically in San Francisco from 2010–2013. (The Ellis Act is a state law that says landlords have the unconditional right to evict tenants to “go out of business.”) Also, Google, Apple, and other companies hire private buses to transport workers from San Francisco to their headquarters in Silicon Valley. Recent protests at private bus stops focused on raising awareness of the growing inequalities between a class of highly paid technology workers and other working families in the city, and how that inequality prices lower- and middle-wage families out of many neighborhoods in San Francisco.

Job Growth but Widening Inequality

Across California during the Great Recession, job growth occurred in low-wage industries, and employment in mid-wage occupations declined and continued to decline in the recovery (California Budget Project 2013). Only high-wage workers experienced wage growth, so much so that “the gap between the hourly earnings of California’s high- and low-wage workers has continued to expand and in 2012 was the widest ever recorded” (CBP 2013:10). This gap is particularly notable in San Francisco, San Jose, and Silicon Valley areas due to the renewed technology boom.

Responding Bay Area-Style through Protesting and Innovating

Across the country social action and protests sought to raise awareness about economic inequality. The Bay Area,with is long history of social activism, also saw an increase in this type of activity inthe last five years, most notably the Occupy and student protests in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. Protests occurred around issues such as economic inequality, Ellis Act evictions, rising tuition costs, police brutality, and cuts to child care and other social programs.

In addition, people of the Bay Area responded to the recession in innovative ways. Co-housing has increased, both between members of extended families, and among strangers coming together to share costs and create community in co-op style. New nonprofits, start-ups, and microenterprise business incubators popped up across the Bay Area to help people nurture ideas, co-work, start small businesses, meet others working on similar issues, or address a social problem.

Concerns about inequality and hard times persist in the Bay Area. The 2014 Local Arrangements committee looks forward to exploring, examining, discussing, and debating these issues through this article series, the regional spotlight sessions and tours, and throughout the upcoming ASA Annual Meeting in San Francisco this August.

Sheila Katz is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and is Chair of the 2014 Local Arrangements Committee.

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