Why Americans Think Congress Just Doesn’t Get It
Policy + Politics

Why Americans Think Congress Just Doesn’t Get It

It has long been a given that Congress is a playground for the wealthy, with many members like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA) millionaires many times over. 

The House -- the so-called “people’s chamber,” created by the Founders to be closer than the Senate  to average Americans – is much wealthier than the rest of the country and far wealthier than past Congresses. An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics shows freshmen House members in the 112th Congress boasted a median net worth of $807,013, compared with a median income of just $44,900 for the public at large last year. In fairness, that number includes homes and cars, and the public at large includes 15 year olds and older. 

Related: The Ten Richest Members of Congress in 2014 

Here is a chart that illustrates this point:

How did these politicians make it to the top, and did that movement reflect true social mobility? Were many of them born rich, like Rockefeller, or did they benefit from upper middle-class upbringings and good educations?

As Richard V. Reeves, a fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution noted in a “Social Mobility Memo”  last week, “Wealth in adulthood does not necessarily indicate a privileged start in life.”

“Perhaps our representatives rose from rags to riches, and their recent wealth obscures less-affluent childhoods,” he wrote along with researcher Edward P. Rodrigue. “After all, the House is becoming more representative by race and gender. There is also less overt nepotism, with a sharp drop over time in the proportion of freshman members who are related to other members of Congress.

Reeves, the policy director for the Center on Children and Families and a former director of strategy to the United Kingdom’s Deputy Prime Minister, has devoted considerable time to the study of economic mobility.

“The issue of upward mobility and generational mobility is a huge one politically now,” he said in an interview last week. “You see it in politics across the spectrum. Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Obama, Elizabeth Warren, etc., pretty much all recognizing this is one of the things challenging America now – which is the extent to which people are able to rise.”

Related: Summers Says We Risk Becoming a ‘Downton Abbey’ Economy   

One question that intrigued Reeves was whether or not members of Congress rose to prominence on their own steam or “in a sense were born to relative affluence” and eventually “found their way into politics.”

There are certainly examples of self-made, up-by-your bootstraps success stories in Congress – of men and women who came from very humble beginnings and – through dint of hard work and ability -- worked their way up in business, the professional world and finally politics. 

Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH), for example, grew up in a working class family outside of Pittsburgh. His mother was a nurse and his father was a railroad worker who lost his job when Renacci was eight years old. He graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and later started his own chain of nursing homes and launched a political career that ultimately led to his election to Congress in 2010. 

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), grew up poor in Tucson. When her stepfather lost his job, the family lived for two years in a former gas station. She graduated as her high school’s valedictorian, earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work as well as a law degree, and went on to become a social worker in a Phoenix school district. She later went into politics to help people with similar backgrounds as hers, and won a seat in Congress in 2012. 

These Horatio Alger type stories are increasingly rare in a Congress where many of the members enjoyed many advantages in life. Reeves was intent on devising a metric to determine how many members of Congress “started life near the top of the economic ladder.” 

He did it by looking at two education-based measures, which may serve as proxies for their family income during childhood: 

n  The first was private high school attendance. It stands to reason that children whose parents can afford private school tuition in most cases enjoy other advantages such as living in safer neighborhoods, outside tutoring and access to job networks – advantages that “tend to perpetuate class divides, as richer parents hoard them, while poorer parents struggle to obtain them,” Reeves said.

n  The second was community and state college attendance rates for the 112th Congress. For poorer students whose parents can’t afford tuition at major universities or Ivy League schools, community and state colleges offered upwardly mobile young people a path to the middle class.  

Related: How Income Inequality Can Hurt the Economy 

Reeves found that private school attendance among freshman House members gradually declined as the public school system expanded and improved. Even so, there has always been a fairly sizeable gap between the percentage of House members and the general public who attended private schools.

Across the years in question, the freshman members’ rate of private high school attendance has been a little more than twice the national average: 20 percent versus 9 percent,” Reeves and Rodrique wrote. Despite huge investments and improvements in public school education, “the balance between privately and publicly educated congressmen has been unchanged for half a century.”

A striking 99 percent of the freshmen members of the 112th Congress (which ran from January 3, 2011 until January 3, 2013) had a college degree, compared to just a little over a third of Americans of the same age cohort who had anything above a high school education. But as the authors note, that is probably a good thing, since presumably “we want our legislators to be well-read” and highly educated.

Only 6.5 percent of the freshman members of the 112th Congress attended a two-year institution, compared to 28 percent of the same age cohort in the general population.

In short, the researchers concluded, “The education backgrounds of House members suggest that they’re not only richer than the average American as adults, but come from more affluent families, too. This gap is stubbornly persistent, at least judging from our benchmarks.”

Related: Run, Elizabeth, Run, Say Warren’s Fans

Finally, does it really matter if members of Congress don’t wholly represent their constituents in terms of wealth or background?  Reeves seems to think it does. One obvious danger, he says, is that “in general, affluent opinion departs from popular opinion.”

The proof?  While 78 percent of Americans believe that the minimum wage should be high enough to keep a family with a full-time worker above the poverty level, just 40 percent of the wealthiest four percent agree, according to research by Larry Bartels at Northwestern University. Moreover, Bartels found that wealthier Americans are more likely to perceive budget deficits as more important than unemployment or education. 

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