Wealth Disparity Grows Between Lawmakers and their Constituents

The financial divide between lawmakers and their constituents has significantly widened since 1975, when newly inducted members of congress included a steel mill worker, a barber, a pipe fitter, and a house painter.

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In 1975, it wasn’t nearly so unusual as it is today for a person with few assets, other than a home, to win and serve in Congress. But the financial gap between Americans and their representatives has widened considerably since then, according to a report by The Washington Post.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House of Representatives more than doubled, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home equity.

Over that same period of time, the wealth of the average American family has declined, from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan. The data excludes home equity, as it is not included in congressional reporting, and 1984 was chosen because it is the earliest year for which consistent wealth statistics are available.

The growing financial divide between members of Congress and most Americans is consistent with a general trend toward wealth inequality in the United States.

In recent decades, the wealth of the wealthiest Americans has outpaced that of the average. In 1984, the 90th percentile of U.S. families had personal assets worth six times those of the median family. But by 2009, the 90th percentile was worth 12 times the median family, according to the University of Michigan study. These figures include home equity.

This same growing inequality is also seen in Congress. Not only has the median wealth of its members increased, but the proportion of representative with little besides a home has shrunk. In 1984, one in five House members had zero or negative net worth when excluding home equity. By 2009, that number had dropped to one in 12.

One reason for the shift may be the growing cost of running a campaign, which gives wealthier candidates an advantage, as they can donate substantially to their own campaigns.

The average amount spent by winning House candidates has quadrupled since 1976, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $1.4 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

It certainly isn’t congressional pay that has risen. Adjusting for inflation, members of Congress each earned $215,000 in 1977, while members of Congress today earn $174,000.

The growth of income inequality has tracked very closely with measures of political polarization, which academics have gauged over the last decade using the average difference between the liberal/conservative scores for Republican and Democratic members of the House. The scores come from a database widely used by academics.

However, though trends of economic inequality and elite political polarization have moved in tandem over the last half century, exactly why this should be is a matter of ongoing research, though many believe it is that one’s financial circumstances affect a one’s political outlook, and that those with lower incomes are more likely to see income inequality as a problem, and favor more traditionally Democratic policies that would seek to remedy that inequality.

A representative’s occupation before being elected has also been shown to affect how he or she votes, according to a more than 50-year study of congressional votes by Duke University professor Nick Carnes. The study shows farm owners and business people such as bankers and insurance executives to be the most conservative, while teachers, social workers, politicians, and blue-collar workers tend to be more liberal.

“People tend to bring the worldview that comes with their occupation with them into office,” said Carnes.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Knapp at staff.writers@wallstcheatsheet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Damien Hoffman at editors@wallstcheatsheet.com