NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Growing Wealth Widens Distance between Lawmakers and Constituents

January 3, 2012

The financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably in the past few decades.  According to an analysis of financial disclosures, members of Congress became significantly wealthier over that time, while Americans on the whole actually saw a slight decrease in median wealth.  The growing disparity between the representatives and the represented suggests that there are growing barriers to entry and that it has become rarer to find the "blue-collar" representatives that dotted previous congresses, says the Washington Post.

  • Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars.
  • Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500.
  • In 1984, one in five House members had zero or negative net worth excluding home equity, but by 2009, that number had dropped to one in 12.

One explanation of this trend is that over the same period, wealthy Americans on the whole have outpaced the nation in increasing personal wealth.  In 1984, the 90th percentile of U.S. families had holdings worth six times the median family's; by 2009, the 90th percentile was worth 12 times the median family.  Thus, because Congress has traditionally been filled with the wealthy, their gains in recent decades make sense.

An alternative theory points to the rising costs of campaigning, and suggests that the wealthy are more often running for office because they are better equipped to self-finance.  Indeed, since 1976, the average amount spent by winning House candidates quadrupled to $1.4 million, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

One red herring that is often mistakenly included in the mix of plausible explanations for this trend is that members of Congress today make more than they have in the past.  However, in inflation-adjusted dollars, a member of Congress earned $215,000 in 1977; today, a member earns $174,000.

Regardless of the true reason, the existence of the trend remains significant in and of itself.  Growth in the wealth of the average member of Congress will likely have substantial political implications, both in campaigns and public policy.

Source: Peter Whoriskey, "Growing Wealth Widens Distance between Lawmakers and Constituents," Washington Post, December 26, 2011.

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