Since starting her new job at Yelp’s San Francisco headquarters, Talia Jane couldn’t afford to eat. She had to stop using her heater because the bill was too expensive. To pay their rent, some of her co-workers started a GoFundMe account to solicit donations. This is what life is like in the Bay Area, where Talia worked—or rather, used to work—as a customer service representative at Yelp. When Talia Jane penned an open letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman on Medium, explaining her complaints about his company’s wage practices, she was promptly fired.
On top of losing her job, the “Dear Jeremy” caused a backlash online—not just against Yelp but Talia herself from those blaming her for her bad choices. The top comment on her Medium post—from Kris Gellici, a ?Mobile Software Engineer at Handle—refers to her as “stupid.” “Don’t expect easy jobs that pay more than a teacher’s salary,” Gel writes. “Don’t complain about a situation you put yourself in. Yes, moving to one of the most expensive areas for a minimum wage job was your decision.”
While the average rent within 10-mile radius of San Francisco skyrockets to $3,484, the lack of affordable housing is forcing the city’s residents out onto the streets at increasingly high rates.
This is a common problem whenever young people speak out about America’s extreme wealth inequality—to insist that they are to blame for their own situations. If Talia Jane is having difficulty affording her rent, she must be the problem. If she was fired, it’s her fault. This ignores the fact that after being let go, someone else will be hired to fill her position. Another person just like Talia will be forced to get by on $8.25 an hour (after taxes), living on office snack food and rice to get by. For Yelp to provide its services to millions of Americans, its current wage practices dictate that someone will have to starve in her place.
Stoppelman said Talia’s letter was not the reason she got fired and took to Twitter to lament the rising cost of living in San Francisco.
1/5 Late last night I read Talia's medium contribution and want to acknowledge her point that the cost of living in SF is far too high.— Jeremy Stoppelman (@jeremys) February 20, 2016
Talia Jane’s case is but one example of the changing face of the working poor in America’s most unequal city. A report published back in 2014 by the city’s Human Services Agency compared the enormous gap between the wealthy and impoverished to developing nations like Rwanda and Guatemala. Since then, the gap has only widened: A separate study from last year found that the city’s top- and bottom-earning households were separated by over a quarter of a million dollars, the highest in the nation.
The tent cities that have formed in cities like San Jose have made the homeless the most obvious symbol of Silicon Valley’s inequality problem, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Talia is far from the worst-case scenario. While the average rent within 10-mile radius of San Francisco skyrockets to $3,484, the lack of affordable housing is forcing the city’s residents out onto the streets at increasingly high rates. As Fusion’s Kashmir Hill points out, San Francisco has an extremely large homeless population for such a geographically small city. As of the most recent report, there were 149 marginally housed persons per square mile. The only city that scored worse on that index was New York, but the Big Apple has a much better record of finding its homeless residents housing.
The tent cities that have formed in cities like San Jose have made the homeless the most obvious symbol of Silicon Valley’s inequality problem, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Estimates suggest that workers need to make $29.83 an hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment, which is well more than twice the city’s current minimum wage ($12.25 an hour). That comes out to $62,000 a year. That might not sound like much to many Americans, but if you’re working at a dry cleaners, it might as well be a small fortune.
While Google’s bus drivers are living in their cars, Gen Fujioka of the Chinatown Community Development Center told Huffington Post Live last year that the city’s low- and middle-class workers are being pushed out of the city. “We’re losing our teachers, our artists, our nurses, in many ways, a huge part of our creative class that formerly made San Francisco a great place to live,” Fujioka said. That’s a major problem for a city that is fueled by not only by educators and healthcare professionals, but the low-wage labor of the service industry. Without people to serve the coffee, drive public transportation, and answer customer calls, the city simply cannot run.
Some have proposed raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2018, but that’s a long way off for a solution that’s only halfway there. San Francisco needs to reduce inequality by furthering what the New Statesman’s David Halperin has called wealth predistribution: “Share ownership, profit-sharing, the creation of new sovereign wealth funds, and universal asset stakes for citizens.” Mic’s Jack Smith IV put the concept in lay terms: It’s about “how money gets into the hands of both the rich and the poor in the first place—instead of treating symptoms after they’ve occurred.”
Talia Jane is not the face of the city’s struggles, but she’s one of many voices speaking out against a system that views those who can’t afford it as disgusting or reprehensible—indicative of some kind of moral failing.
And in addition to fighting rising rents, San Francisco needs to change how it views the workers who are being forced out by the tech boom—which include not just millennials but the city’s historic LGBT population. Many of those living on the streets are the exact people who helped build San Francisco, queer youth who were looking for a safe haven in a city that was a Mecca for outsiders and outcasts. In 2013, the HSA found that 26 percent of the Bay Area’s homeless identified as LGBT. These are the same people whom entrepreneur Justin Keller recently referred to as “riff-raffs” in an open letter to Mayor Ed Lee.
Talia Jane is not the face of the city’s struggles, but she’s one of many voices speaking out against a system that views those who can’t afford it as disgusting or reprehensible—indicative of some kind of moral failing. “[T]he reality is, we live in a free market society,” Keller wrote. “The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it.” The more we keep telling ourselves that the poor, the marginalized, and the young have it coming, the more we will create a million workers just like them.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of “The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions” and the co-editor of the bestsellingBOYSanthology series. Follow him on Twitter @Nico_Lang.
Photo via torbakhopper/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)