The House and Senate of the 113th Congress are the most diverse in history, with a record number of women and lawmakers of Latino, Asian- and African-American heritage elected in 2012.
But praise of a new age of political leadership in Washington misses a certain other reality, some argue: The current Congress is still overwhelmingly white, male and older than 65, and members of Congress enjoy a quality of life that is higher than the average American.
The Measure of America, an offshoot project of the Social Science Research Council, released an infographic Thursday that shows the disparity between the people who serve in Congress and the people they represent. It’s not just in terms of ethnic and gender discrepancies, however, but in terms of socioeconomic and education backgrounds, too. The group hopes that in releasing the information, it will spur discussion on ways Congress can be more responsive to the needs of its constituents.
While the median salary of a member of Congress is $174,000, the median annual income for most Americans is $29,000. Education-wise, more than 95 percent of members of Congress have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with only 28 percent of the general population. As for careers: 41 percent of members are lawyers, while .6 percent of all Americans practice law.
What ties this all together is that the MoA has also assigned the 113th Congress a ranking along the “American Human Development Index.” The hallmark of the organization’s work, the scale is modeled after the United Nations Development Programme’s metric system as “an alterative to GDP and other money metrics that tells the story of how ordinary Americans are faring and empowers communities ... to track progress over time.” Instead, the American Human Development Index used by MoA measures a community’s overall “well-being” by looking at health, education and earnings.
Using this measurement, on a scale of 1 to 10, Congress has been given a ranking of 7.68 out of 10. The highest-ranked state by MoA is Connecticut, which comes in at 6.17. The MoA’s lowest-ranked state is Mississippi, with a score of 3.81. The United States itself is placed at 5.03.
In other words, according to this metric, members of Congress have a better quality of life than the average American.
This is the point the MoA hopes to drive home with the infographic, perhaps more so than a more grounded glimpse into diversity’s limitations on Capitol Hill. That is, if this measurement is correct in asserting that increased access to education and a higher-than-average yearly income contribute to an overall level of happiness and success that exceeds that of most other Americans, then perhaps Congress should be more inclined to look at policy proposals to bring constituents up to its American Human Development Index level.
“Overall, we want Congress to have a better tool for figuring out priorities,” MoA Co-Director Sarah Burd-Sharps said. “One of the things this infographic shows is in their own lives, education set them forth on high levels of opportunities. . . . We would say that in order to make progress and well-being for their constituents, they need to enact the kinds of policies to help [constituents].”
It wouldn’t hurt Congress to have a better sampling of representatives across the cultural and socioeconomic cross-sections, either, Burd-Sharps acknowledged.
“We are trying to make this point,” she said. “A Congress that reflects the full diversity of our society is more likely to be responsive to its needs and look at all groups and have new perspectives and new information that will enable them to create better solutions.”