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Opinion: Poverty on 'my side' of Silicon Valley
02:54 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN’s Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Email him at The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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John Sutter: Tech companies have a moral obligation to reduce inequality

The tech sector long has been too cold to local issues, he writes

CNN  — 

They marched across Silicon Valley to have a conversation about economic justice.

Four days and 30 miles later, the relatively small group of demonstrators – carrying signs that read “March to Heal the Valley” – arrived at the Cupertino, California, campus of Apple, the world’s richest company.

“We showed up, and we were informed that we were not allowed to be there,” said activist Andrew Bigelow, one of the brains behind the October 2013 demonstration, which he said included homeless people as well as those that couldn’t pay the valley’s exorbitant rents, which have been driven up by tech companies. “A lot of people just walked by and didn’t even look at us in the eyes. A lot of people were, you know, shaking their heads or laughing – talking to their friends while looking at us. It definitely felt different, you know.”

(An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on the demonstration).

Another participant in the march, Raj Jayadev, told me it felt “like a parable.” I have to agree. It’s like David asking Goliath to kindly hear his grievances, only to have the giant plug his ears.

It’s high time for Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies to acknowledge their role in creating a valley that not only is an economic powerhouse but also is crippled by inequality and poverty. These companies aren’t entirely to blame, but their founders and employees do have the cash to help stop this valley of strip malls and subdivisions from becoming a place where only the very wealthy can survive. With few counterexamples, the tech set has been shirking on its local civic duties – either ignorant of the fact that one in three kids in this rich valley is at risk for hunger or largely unwilling to care.

They aren’t helping enough.

And they have a moral obligation to do so.

$1,000 a month for a garage

In November, after readers of this website voted for me to cover this topic as part of the Change the List series, I visited Silicon Valley to document child poverty for CNN. Companies such as Apple and Google love to tout the fact that their mammoth companies have humble roots in Silicon Valley garages. They’ve become symbols of bootstrap innovation. But I found garages being used for a much different purpose these days: They house children.

I met a young mother raising an infant daughter in a single-car garage in San Mateo, California. Her monthly rent: $1,000. No kitchen, of course, and barely room for the crib. And all of that is a remarkable improvement. The Samaritan House helped her out of homelessness and into that garage.

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Opinion: Mom pays $1,000 a month for a garage
03:55 - Source: CNN

Worse, perhaps, were the working parents I met in a San Jose homeless shelter operated by a group called Family Supportive Housing. Mom was working as an office receptionist and dad, ironically, as a home builder. But two incomes apparently won’t keep a roof over your children’s heads in this valley of riches. Not when median rent in San Mateo County is nearly $3,000 a month, according to Zillow estimates, and it’s always rising, in part because the valley’s engineers are paid so well. A family of four would need an often-unattainable $60,000 to $100,000 a year just to get by, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

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Opinion: Two jobs and still living in a shelter
04:49 - Source: CNN

And none of that’s to mention the children who, when I visited, were living in a tent camp and shanty town called “the jungle,” right in the heart of San Jose.

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Opinion: Meet the children of Silicon Valley's 'Jungle'
06:57 - Source: CNN

‘Moral shame’ of Silicon Valley

Apple, meanwhile, raked in $18 billion in profit from October through December last year alone. The company is valued at more than $730 billion, which is more than the GDP of Switzerland.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told me these inequities are the “moral shame” of Silicon Valley. He’s right, but there’s little sign the valley’s millionaires and billionaires see it that way.

True, some of the richest people in tech are quite generous. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, for example, lists three Silicon Valley tech billionaires among its top 10 American donors of 2014. Those three men – Jan Koum of WhatsApp, Sergey Brin of Google and Nicholas Woodman of GoPro – donated a combined $1.4 billion to charity that year alone. They should be commended for it. But much of that money goes outside Silicon Valley, leaving local nonprofits strapped for cash and unable to meet the needs of the homeless and hungry.

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which holds $6.5 billion in assets and is the main target of the valley’s big donors, gave less than 46% of its 2014 grants to organizations in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, which includes Silicon Valley as well as seven additional counties. The foundation’s CEO, Emmett Carson, told me the mix of global and local donations reflects the diversity and priorities of the Silicon Valley community. Carson also contends the actual amount of the local donations is still sizable: $216 million.

It is, but it’s also clearly not enough.

While there are countless worthy causes around the world, I find it hugely upsetting that poverty and homelessness are allowed to persist in Silicon Valley amid such jaw-dropping wealth. Especially since Big Tech helps exacerbate these local problems.

This is more the fault of the donors than the foundation. Ninety percent of the contributions given to the foundation are put into donor-advised funds, according to Carson. The donor gets a tax break immediately – and can decide later how and where to spend the money, as long as it goes to a nonprofit.

“(Facebook CEO Mark) Zuckerberg gave a billion to the community foundation, and it’s sitting there,” said Peter Hero, founder and principal of the Hero Group and former CEO of the community foundation’s predecessor organization. “It’s actually sitting on Wall Street. It’s not going out. (Zuckerberg) hasn’t decided what to do with it.”

(Foundation spokeswoman Sue McAllister told me at least $225 million of Zuckerberg’s $990 million donation has been allocated, including $75 million to a San Francisco hospital, $120 million to Bay Area schools and $5 million to the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto, California.)

“Being a good neighbor is extremely important to Facebook,”