Over the last two decades, 90 percent of workers in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties—the heart of Silicon Valley—have seen their real wages go down, according to a new study by the University of California, Santa Cruz and the think tank Working Partnership USA.
"The median wage for workers in the Silicon Valley region declined by 14 percent," the research showed.
This drop in income comes at the same time that productivity in the United States is at record highs, the study found. Worse still, many costs are rising: notably Bay Area housing is increasingly unaffordable.
In short, most workers—regardless of whether they work in the tech sector or not—are getting poorer due to venture capital-driven business models that prioritize outlandish returns fueled by low-wage work that captures a given market quickly.
"If labor’s share of production in 2016 had been the same as in 2001, every employed Silicon Valley worker would have received, on average, an additional $8,480," the authors wrote.
That difference is being pocketed by investors and owners, the research concluded.
Chris Benner, one of the study’s authors, and a UCSC professor of environmental studies, told Ars that state and federal governments could mitigate this problem by raising minimum wage laws, restricting outsourcing, strengthening unions, and raising taxes for the wealthy.
"What we’re seeing in this data is that the returns to capital are significantly outpacing the returns to labor," he said, noting that some more radical notions, including a universal basic income or something like it, should be considered as well.
"We need to be exploring that, otherwise we’re going to continue with the tremendous inequality that we’re experiencing," he concluded, noting that homelessness in Bay Area cities is the worst that it has ever been.
Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings, told Ars that a "seismic shift in the tech economy" is needed to make a real difference.
"Monopoly-busting is key to this," she emailed. "Right now, a few companies—namely Google and Amazon—have an outsized ability to shape the economy. Their winner-take-all business models have reverberating effects across markets in Silicon Valley. If we want to fight inequality, we have to create more equitable markets. Antitrust laws need to be robustly enforced against these tech giants."