We need poor people in Congress

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who was once a recipient of public assistance, talks about food stamps and lawmakers' SNAP challenge. Photo via accfb.org.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who was once a recipient of public assistance, talks about food stamps and lawmakers’ SNAP challenge. Photo via accfb.org.

We all recognize on some level that the circles that members of Congress run in are very different from the ones where most of us live our lives. But a new piece by Stephen Lurie over at The Atlantic shows just how stark the disparity really is:

For the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Nearly 200 are multimillionaires. One hundred are worth more than $5 million; the top-10 deal in nine digits. The annual congressional salary alone—$174,000 a year—qualifies every member as the top 6 percent of earners. None of them are close to experiencing the poverty-reduction programs—affordable housing, food assistance, Medicaid—that they help control. Though some came from poverty, a recent analysis by Nicholas Carnes, in his book White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking, found that only 13 out of 783 members of Congress from 1999 to 2008 came from a “blue-collar” upbringing. None of them have experienced that poverty in decades; those who did did so under vastly different public-policy circumstances.

That’s less than 2% of members of Congress who have lived a “blue collar” lifestyle, compared to 54% of Americans who have held blue collar jobs as adults. It adds new meaning to the concept of politicians’ being out of touch. 

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of representation in politics and the way a diversity of life experiences in our government can result in better policy. A black man is going to better understand the demoralizing nature of “stop and frisk” policies. A woman understands what a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment would feel like. And a poor person understands how simplistic and wrongheaded it is to blame character flaws for poverty and cut funding for critical services. But most of the people setting that policy have never spent time in poverty, or even in the vicinity of it, and we get the policy results you would expect:

Apply this concern for wealth and the wealthy over political time, and the status of poverty and poverty spending in the U.S. logically follows: It’s largely ignored. As Eduardo Porter notes in the New York Times, “Few things are better at conveying what a nation really cares than how it spends its money.” The U.S. spends among the lowest on the poor per capita in the OECD, is the least effective at reducing poverty, and consequently, faces the largest poverty problem. Measured by the official poverty measure, poverty now is no lowerthan the level of nearly 50 years ago. Measured by the supplementary-poverty measure (which takes transfers into account), poverty had decreased significantly until 2000 but hasn’t declined since. While the poor continue to struggle, political outcomes have been more favorable for elites. Recent research by professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concludes that American policy is disproportionately influenced by, and consequently benefits, moneyed interests. Given the circumstances of the decision makers, and their interest in remaining decision makers, this is a predictable outcome.

I am always grateful in a way that my family struggled financially when I was a kid. (That’s easier to say as a child who was probably shielded from a lot than as a parent trying to keep a family afloat.) While it was never as dire as what many Americans are facing today, I always knew money was an issue and that I couldn’t have everything my friends had. It’s made me far less likely to take anything for granted in the more comfortable life I know live, and I am more sympathetic to the struggles people face than I would be otherwise. But Lurie points out that this experience is devalued in our politics:

On other issues, experience is deemed one of the most enviable characteristics for our elected officials. In times of war we seek veterans to lead and for troubled economies we want a proven hand, but the experience of poverty has never been held in as high esteem.

We can’t expect effective and humane policy without representatives who understand, witness, and investigate the experience that they control. The forces that act on people living in poverty would act on the rest of us the same way, as Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Poverty of all types—of time, mental bandwidth, and money—features a mindset of scarcity, where making the right choices are harder, and outcomes are bleaker.

In today’s politics, it’s unfashionable to talk about poor people. The political rhetoric focuses on the (shrinking) middle class. And our political system is not set up to funnel people without money and connections into political office. Lurie talks about how there is some success when politicians try to temporarily experience these struggles, by living on a food stamp budget or sleeping in a homeless shelter. That’s better than nothing, but we need to figure out a way to get people with relevant real life experience making policy. In the meantime, we must pressure politicians and hold them accountable for these inhumane policies that favor the rich over the rest of us.

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4 comments

  1. The issue is also one of ignorance — literally not even knowing people socially or professionally whose incomes are so low, perilous and wage-based (versus salary, let alone with benefits). The “other” then becomes some tedious, abstract notion easy to dismiss.

    I worked a retail job, part-time, for $11/hr, no commission, from 2007 to 2009 and wrote a book about it. I admit freely in the book that I had never been paid so little or treated with such casual contempt by some of our wealthy customers — for whom we were barely human. They felt so confident they and their families would never have to sink so low. It was, as they say, instructive.

    This is the economic class of elected officials; if Undercover Boss can do it, why not have every elected official spend a week working a low-wage job and try to understand the multiple challenges of it? Until or unless poverty or financial stress has touched you personally (as you write here), you have no idea how tough it is.

    1. It is so easy for members of Congress to avoid close encounters with people who are struggling in this way. It’s one of the reasons why constituents interacting with politicians directly is so important. There are lots of examples of politicians changing their minds about issues (marriage equality, etc.) after someone close to them was affected. My representative Barbara Lee, who was on public assistance at one time, has led the charge for members of Congress trying to briefly experience what people on food stamps struggle with, and hopefully more people will get on board.

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