Why Does the Wealth Gap Between Congress and Voters Matter?

The typical elected representative is nine-times wealthier than the typical voter. Is that a bad thing?

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Washington Post

The blockbuster story of the morning is a Washington Post/New York Times double-header on the exploding wealth gap between us and Washington. Between 1984 and 2009, the bottom of the recession, the wealth of the typical American family (not counting home equity) declined slightly. But the median net worth of a congressperson more than doubled to $725,000 over the same period. Another look at the gap: Since 2004 the median net worth of a member of Congress grew by 15%. For everyone else, wealth dropped 8%.

It all adds up to this: Today, the typical member of Congress is worth more than nine times the typical voter that puts him or her in Washington. You will not be surprised to know that Congress is a part of the 1%. You might be surprised to know how many are a part of the 0.1%.

One response to this story is: It explains everything! The wealth gap explains why congresspeople seem so terribly disconnected from the plight of the populous. It explains why Congress is so polarized about trying to help the unemployed while creating hiring conditions for profitable businesses. It explains why arguments to lower taxes on the wealthy hold so much sway on Capitol Hill. It explains why anti-regulation, laissez-faire policies have won backing only years after a credit crash caused, or at least exacerbated, by poor regulation set off the Great Recession.

But another response to the wealth gap might be: It explains nothing. Washington's wealth has nothing to do with Washington's policies. Congress isn't disconnected from our economic problems. It's simply evenly divided between two parties with very different ideas about how to solve them. Polarization isn't a story about rising income inequality. It's a story about rising filibuster usage and procedural rules that allow the minority to block everything but a super-majority.

I find myself leaning ever-so-slightly toward to the second explanation. Income inequality is an important trend. But I'm not convinced that it explains Washington. In the Washington Post story, Peter Whoriskey writes: "The growing disparity between the representatives and the represented means that there is a greater distance between the economic experience of Americans and those of lawmakers." But how meaningful is a shared economic experience between Americans and lawmakers? If politicians were poorer, for example, why do we think they would be better politicians?

The evidence that wealthy people are more likely to be anti-welfare (to pick a public policy example) is spotty at best. You can't say Republicans' wealth makes them less likely to support higher spending on the poor, because congressional Democrats are actually richer. Moreover, various studies find that the super-rich just as likely to be a part of either party. When it comes to the policies we support, net worth isn't destiny.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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