Last week, I was at the Singularity University Global Summit in downtown SF giving a presentation on Autonomous Vehicles. It was at the Hilton on Union Square. One lunch break, I hopped out for a bite. Turning the corner, I found a street lined with homeless people sleeping on cardboard. Waste filled streets and it smelled like a public toilet. It was jarring – the contrast between a high-energy, lavish tech conference solving “exponential problems”, and the poverty right at our doorstep.
Bringing it even closer to home, did you know that one-third of school children in East Palo Alto are homeless? They live in trailer parks and the back of cars with their families. This is happening just 10 minutes away from Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park, some of the richest districts in the world.
The incredible wealth in the Valley has raised some troubling societal issues. Daniel Saver, senior staff attorney in charge of the housing program at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, has dealt with many cases of tenants receiving massive unanticipated rent increases — often of $400-$600 dollars a month, or even up to $1,000 or $1,200 a month. This is a functional eviction notice for many.
Even the highest paid tech workers are not spared, but the burden has disproportionately fallen on middle to low-income service workers – cooks, cleaners, security officers in tech companies – where minority races (African-American, Latino) are over-represented. Teachers, nurses and other service professionals are also affected because their salaries can’t keep pace with the housing prices.
“Inclusive” and “Growth”: Can we have both?
The problem I highlighted above isn’t particularly a “tech” or “Silicon Valley” problem, although it certainly is exaggerated here. Any region undergoing rapid growth experiences a surge in demand for services and infrastructure (such as homes, healthcare and roads). When infrastructure growth can’t catch up, people at the lower end of the income spectrum are priced out. In the case of the Silicon Valley, they move further out and commute to work, or live in trailer parks. Some leave the region altogether. In this way, the Silicon Valley has become an exclusive bubble of wealth.
Singapore’s earliest leaders understood the trade-off between growth and inclusiveness acutely. They knew that the problem I outlined above would be many orders worse in an island whose total land area is half the size of Los Angeles, with little room to expand: in large countries like America, people who are priced out of one region can move to a cheaper region. People make their money in one state and retire in another. A large land area is a natural buffer against economic upheaval.
This was not an option for Singapore: our little island needed rapid economic growth to stand a chance for survival. At the same time, we couldn’t afford to push people out when the cost of living increased. We had to remain a comfortable home for people at all life stages and all incomes across many cycles of economic change.
Four social policies served as bastions for inclusiveness as our economy grew:
- First: our housing policy. 80% of all Singaporeans live in public housing built by the Government. Families earning below S$170K a year (about USD$115K) are eligible for public housing. Public housing in Singapore is very different from how Americans imagine: They are not gray, dingy rental facilities serving low-income neighborhoods. Apartment blocks are modern and undergo periodic regeneration. Urban planners design each public housing estate to include libraries, parks, common spaces, transportation networks and schools. Our public housing is highly subsidized, with lower-income families receiving higher subsidies. This policy keeps homes affordable for the large majority of the population.
- Second, our healthcare policy. You can read about it comprehensively in this New York Times article, but I will point out one aspect: universal healthcare insurance. Instead of leaving insurance completely to free market providers – which potentially prices people out of this critical good – the Singapore Government provides a basic layer of healthcare insurance for all Singaporeans, called “Medishield”. Singaporeans are free to buy additional plans and riders from private insurers, but these are built on top of the basic, universal medical insurance.
- Third, our education policy. We have a universal education system covering ages 7-16. Education is almost free. Schools are centrally resourced, not by the tax districts they are in.
- Fourth, our retirement policy. This was an unpopular move at the start, but every Singaporean now has a “CPF account”. They are forced to save 20% of income each month here. In addition, employers must contribute 17% on top of salary to the employee’s “CPF account”. This money can be used on three purposes: retirement (the bulk), healthcare and housing. In this way, all Singaporeans are saving up for their retirement.
Singapore’s social policies are not perfect. There are many issues we are reviewing, some of which I worked on prior to my current job. However, our approach demonstrates an active and systematic attempt to tackle the trade-off between economic growth and inclusiveness – I have not seen the equivalent in the United States.
How can the Valley achieve Inclusive Growth?
The United States has a very different context. The Government has not traditionally played a large role in social policy, and there is great political resistance to a change in this direction (for example, the attempt to repeal Obamacare).
Who will step in to fill this large gap in basic public services? I’ve always admired Americans’ ability to self-organize and provide for the needs of their community, which Daniel Saver is doing through his work in East Palo Alto. However, the magnitude of the problem – especially in the Silicon Valley – calls for someone to take more radical responsibility in ensuring basic services for the local community.
I believe technology companies can, and should take on greater responsibility to demonstrate that inclusive growth is possible. Much like how they might form a “Partnership in AI” to recommend rules and ethics in making socially-responsible AI, I believe they can come together to discuss how they may systematically contribute to inclusive development in their local backyard.
- Could the technology companies provide subsidized housing in their own backyards? Facebook plans to build a new campus that will offer 1500 apartments at subsidized rent to the public. It’s a great step, but very small in the grand scheme. Perhaps they can commit to providing some subsidized housing for every X sqft of new development (the local governments should commit to opening new land for this too).
- Can the large army of contract workers be offered better healthcare insurance and retirement benefits?
- Can we help to invest in educational districts that are traditionally under-resourced?
- Can we contribute to the thriving of the teaching, nursing, and social services community in the Bay Area?
The problems in the Valley are certainly not caused by the technology companies alone. Failing infrastructure, outdated policies and politics are a huge part of the problem. However, tech companies are becoming more powerful and rich than many states today, and it is worth asking what new responsibilities come with that.
Tech companies have made exceptional contributions to worldwide causes – from education to hunger and healthcare. I would like to see them applying their tremendous intellect and resources to problems in their own backyard. Perhaps we can make the Silicon Valley an example of inclusive growth, rather than a picture of super fast growth plus ugly inequality. Now, isn’t that something we want to scale throughout the world? It would give many countries and people a greater hope as they seek to emulate us.