Why it matters how much Congress makes

9 Oct

Here’s a headline from yesterday’s news: “Growing wealth widens distance between lawmakers and
constituents” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/growing-wealth-widens-distance-between-lawmakers-and-constituents/2011/12/05/gIQAR7D6IP_story.html).

The scoop? Excluding home equity, since Congress isn’t required to report that (and we can reasonably imagine that that data would only widen the gap) :

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home ­equity.

Over the same period, the wealth of [a US] American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure 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 [US] Americans and those of lawmakers.

Analysis of Congress’ financial disclosures found that:

  • By 2010, the median estimated wealth for members of the House of Representatives was $746,000; for senators it was $2.6 million.
  • There was virtually no difference between the wealth of Republicans and Democrats in 2010. Just six years earlier, the net worth of Republicans was 44% higher than the net worth of Democrats.
  • 28% of Congress, or 150 members, reported earning more income from outside jobs and investments than from their Congressional salary of $174,000.
  • 27% of Congressional members saw a decline in their net worth between 2004 and 2010.

If you want more concrete numbers, you can look up the net worth of specific legislators at the Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/business/congress-members-worth/index.html).

Now while the data itself is arresting, my question is about the “distance” between us and our legislators: what does that distance measure? and why does it matter?

One group of researchers would say: empathy, happiness and ultimately social equity and justice.

In their studies published as “Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy” (which you can read about in the NY Times article “As for empathy, the haves have not”: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/02/fashion/02studied.html?_r=0), researchers conclude that greater affluence correlates with a lesser ability to read other people’s emotions accurately. In other words, a lack of empathy is a “by-product” of wealth. And why does empathic accuracy matter?

Perhaps because empathy–or its absence–influences how we treat other people. In a separate study, UC Berkeley researcher Paul Piff, the Greater Good Science Center’s Dacher Keltner (who also participated in the empathic accuracy research) and colleagues engaged participants “in an exercise that made them feel like they were either of higher or lower status. Then the participants had to say how they thought people should divide up their annual income—on food, recreation, charitable donations, or other items(http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_poor_give_more/). The researchers:

… found evidence that [self-identified lower socioeconomic status] participants’ greater tendency to perform kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—behavior could be explained by their greater concern for egalitarian values and the well-being of other people, and their stronger feelings of compassion for others.

However, the researchers also found that when they induced feelings of compassion in [self-identified higher socioeconomic status] participants, those people showed just as much pro-social behavior as [lower SES] participants. This suggests to the researchers that the rich aren’t as generous as the poor because they don’t typically feel as much compassion for others.

Using these studies of compassion as a lens for the data on the widening socioeconomic gap between Congress and average US Americans, it matters how wealthy Congress is because socioeconomic and class identity–like other social identities–influence how our elected representatives view and vote on social issues. And in addition to inviting greater compassion into how the US decides social policy, having a more diverse Congress would provide our legislators with on-the-job occasions to practice empathy and inclusion… for their own happiness. According to Piff, “Being compassionate, having empathic accuracy, being trusting and cooperative—these are keys to social connection and, in turn, happiness”  (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_inequality_is_bad_for_the_one_percent?utm_source=GG+Newsletter+-+October+2012&utm_campaign=GG+Newsletter+-+October+2012&utm_medium=email).

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