Who’s in Congress & Why it’s Bad for Inequality

October 30, 2012

Public policies are intended to be a reflection of a country’s values and priorities. In reality, tax and economic policy outcomes represent the wants of the financially enriched, not the needs of the bottom 99%.

The U.S. may be a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, but wealthy, white males comprise the vast majority of our supposedly representative legislature. Nearly half of Congressional members are millionaires. In 2010, the median net worth of U.S. Senators and Representatives was $2.63 million and  $756,765, respectively, compared to a median net worth of $66,740 for U.S. households.

On the other hand, two historically marginalized groups—women and people of color—are dramatically underrepresented at the policy tables. Women account for only 16.8% of Congress (27% of them are women of color). People of color represent only 15.1% of Congress, with only four seats in the Senate.

As such, the interests of the wealthy dominate public debates while policies of particular importance for women and communities of color struggle for acknowledgement, let alone forward movement. Deficit hysteria has prompted harmfully misguided cuts to the social safety net while maintaining unnecessary tax cuts for the wealthy, painting a frightening picture of who our elected officials actually serve.

Throughout the presidential campaign, many have the criticized candidates for being “out of touch” with the majority of Americans. It can be reasonably argued that, with a few exceptions, Congress is as well. A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) points out that some legislators have been loyal advocates for the 99%, while others have not.

The report, “A Congressional Report Card for the 99%,” grades Senators and Representatives based on their voting histories on inequality-related Congressional actions. While the report’s focus is mainly on policies addressing economic inequality, it leaves room for a deeper analysis of the impacts of policies on persistent racial and gender disparities.

Nearly all of the 40 congressional actions evaluated by IPS—including bills related to taxes and the federal budget, jobs and wages, education, housing, poverty, and healthcare—have disproportionately affected communities of color and women.  

The Paycheck Fairness Act, for example, would have helped to ensure equal pay for equal work. This measure would have been a boon for women, who still make 77¢ to every dollar a man makes. The Senate failed to secure the 60 votes needed to advance the Act. The oppositions’ main argument—that the bill would burden small businesses—is unfounded and yet another strike in the conservative war on women.

Another bill, the Half in Ten Act, aims to cut poverty in half in the next ten years. The poorest among us, who are disproportionately people of color, were experiencing economic hardship long before the Great Recession began. Blacks and Latinos respectively make up 27.6% and 25.3% of those in poverty and would benefit greatly by this effort. The bill has 68 co-sponsors but has yet to reach a vote in the House or the Senate. Unfortunately, as politically polarized as Congress has become, even the most sensible policies, like Half in Ten, struggle to gain traction.

Moving forward, we should push lawmakers to more carefully examine the impacts of policies on those hardest hit by inequality, like women and people of color. As citizens, we must all fight to make ours a more truly representative democracy, where the voices of those with the biggest bank accounts carry no more volume than those with the smallest.  

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