Why It Matters That
Politicians Have No Experience of Poverty
For the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Maybe the country would be better off if they had some first-hand encounters with need.
by STEPHEN LURIE
This is both a shocking and expected state of affairs: the likelihood of poor or recently poor representatives in a democracy is slim. Political office most often comes through compounding connections, where a more-than-middle-class family, influential college peers, work associates, and other social and religious communities all provide a network of resources that ensures the connected become the elected. The endless need to fundraise among those connections—and to foster new ones—means that the majority of governance takes place within elite communities. As Sabrina Siddiqui and Ryan Grim report in theHuffington Post, fundraising takes up an “obscene portion of a typical day” for a member, four to five hours—and that was before the McCutcheon v. FECdecision opened campaign finance even further. Time in Washington is disproportionately spent fixated on the needs and desires of America’s wealthiest citizens.
Time in their home districts is equally embedded in affluence. Not only are representatives themselves far from poor—they have become far from the poor. The elected are only slightly more likely to encounter poverty at home than they are on the Hill. The increased economic segregation of American neighborhoods means that members of Congress are less likely to mingle with poor, though Democrats tend to represent districts with greater inequality (and greater wealth) than Republicans. Not only are they not using food assistance—they probably don’t shop in places where it’s used. Many members of Congress live in wealthy enclaves, use expensive healthcare services, and send their children to private or high-income schools.
Consequently, America’s political elite is often woefully out of touch with economic reality for those living in poverty—or even those struggling to stay out of it. Former Representative Tom Perriello, writing in Democracy, recounts one example where their cloistered wealth contributed to their politics:
During the 2010 lame-duck session, Congress passed an $858 billion tax-cut extension, leaving in place generous [Bush-era] tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Why was such an opportunity to address inequality and spur economic growth via our tax code missed? ... Most of those who prevented the bill from getting a vote before the election privately argued that the income threshold was too low. In conversations, many would tell me variations of the claim that “250,000 a year is middle class in my district.” Such claims were, of course, wildly exaggerated. Even in the richest district in the country, Virginia’s 10th, over 80 percent of residents fall below that level.
Moreover, Perriello adds, politicians’ personal experience couldn’t be ignored: “We were talking about the tax bracket most members of Congress were in before getting elected, and to which they imagined returning one day.” Whether it was the proximity of politicians to wealth (optimistically) or monetary self-interest (cynically), many officials were concerned with protecting wealth because that is what they knew.