Ellen Chase never thought her life would be like this at age 52. More than a year ago, her husband, Russ, was laid off from his job as a quality assurance engineer in San Jose, California. Then last August, she lost her job as a secretary for a fruit-labeling company that was relocating out of the area. They’ve both been looking for work ever since. Between paying monthly rent of $1,114 and shelling out nearly $600 a month for COBRA health insurance, the Chases are barely able to make ends meet. No other healthcare company will insure the couple because Russ, 57, had open-heart surgery–putting them in the dreaded category of “pre-existing condition.” A few years ago, they brought in a combined annual income of $65,000 and were saving for retirement. Today, they live on unemployment benefits of less than $2,000 a month that will expire in May.
She describes herself as politically conservative, and yet Chase says that her plight has changed her views on issues like healthcare, workers’ rights and government responsibility. She now believes that the United States needs “socialized medicine, like in England,” and should offer more help to those who find themselves without a safety net. “I really feel that the government is not taking care of us,” she says. “For people who have worked as long and as hard as we have, a married couple who pay their fair share of taxes, it’s very upsetting.”
In Silicon Valley, long synonymous with an entrepreneurial spirit, free-market capitalism and libertarianism, more and more workers are, like Chase, rethinking their political views. Not that people are trading in their computers for picket signs, but worker protection, universal healthcare, affordable housing and other traditionally liberal causes are gaining popularity. This shift became evident last November when California bucked a national voting trend that put control of both the US House and Senate into Republican hands. Despite Democratic Governor Gray Davis’s low approval ratings, Californians elected Democrats to all eight of the top state positions for the first time since 1882. The California Congressional delegation is now overwhelmingly Democratic, and San Francisco Representative Nancy Pelosi reigns as House minority leader. Membership in the state Libertarian Party has dropped by about 5,500, from a high of nearly 95,000 in 2000, according to the party’s website.
Peter Leyden, a former editor at Wired magazine and co-author of The Long Boom, once imagined twenty-five years of free-market prosperity where government played only a supporting role. Today Leyden says that a backlash against globalization and corporate irresponsibility, coupled with terrorism and a Republican agenda that doesn’t support technological innovation like stem-cell research, are responsible for the shift in the laissez-faire Valley credo. “I really believe that we are entering an era where we will see a rebalancing toward more government and a conscious effort to force corporations to take more responsibility,” says Leyden, now a “knowledge developer” at Global Business Network and co-author of a new book, What’s Next?
The sustained recession in Silicon Valley has challenged many residents. For ten consecutive months through February, San Jose has reported the nation’s highest unemployment rate for metro areas with populations of more than 1 million. The jobless rate for San Jose in February was 8.5 percent–compared with 5.8 percent nationally and 6.6 percent statewide. Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, lost 85,000 jobs between 2000 and 2002. The office vacancy rate in the Valley is 24 percent, compared with less than 2 percent in early 2000. In a Field Poll released on April 28, 82 percent of Bay Area residents surveyed said that jobs were scarce. And a first-quarter consumer confidence study of Silicon Valley by the Survey and Policy Research Institute found that the proportion of people who say their families are worse off now than a year ago grew to 41 percent–about 10 percent more than last year.