Share this article

print logo

Wealth gap widens considerably for members of Congress, constituents

A day after his shift at the steel mill, Gary Myers drove home in his 10-year-old Pontiac and told his wife he was going to run for Congress.

The odds were long. At 34, Myers was the shift foreman at the "hot mill" of the Armco plant in Butler, Pa. He had no political experience, little or no money, and he was a Republican in a district that tilted Democratic.

But standing in the dining room, still in his work clothes, he said he felt that voters deserved a better choice.

Three years later, he won.

Back when Myers entered Congress in 1975, it wasn't nearly so unusual for a person with few assets besides a home to win and serve in Congress.

But the financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably since then, according to an analysis of financial disclosures by the Washington Post.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 2 1/2 times, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, increasing from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

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.

"My mother and I used to joke we were like 'The Beverly Hillbillies' when we rolled into McLean, and we really were," said Michele Myers, the congressman's daughter, now 46. "My dad was driving this awful lime green Ford Maverick, and I bought my clothes at Kmart."

Today, this area of Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh is represented in Congress by another Republican, Mike Kelly, a wealthy car dealer elected for the first time in 2010.

The growing financial comfort of Congress relative to most Americans is consistent with the general trends in the United States toward inequality of wealth: Members of Congress have long been wealthier than average Americans, and in recent decades the wealth of the wealthiest Americans has outpaced that of the average.

Another possible reason for the growing wealth of Congress is that running a campaign has become much more expensive, making it more likely that wealthy people, who can donate substantially to their own campaigns, gain office.

Since 1976, the amount that the average winning candidate for a House seat spent has quadrupled in inflation-adjusted dollars to $1.4 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

About a decade ago, academics studying the effect of income inequality on politics noticed a striking fact: The growth of income inequality has tracked very closely with measures of political polarization, which has been gauged using the average difference between the liberal/conservative scores for Republican and Democratic members of the House. The scores come from a database widely used by academics.

There are no comments - be the first to comment