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Study: Wealth Gap Between Congress and the American People is Widening

The economic gap between average Americans and our elected representatives in Congress has grown tremendously since the 1980s, according to an analysis conducted by The Washington Post.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars (excluding home equity). Meanwhile, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly over the same period, from $20,600 to $20,500.

While perhaps unsurprising – this mirrors the growing income inequality gap in the country – the growing divide between legislators and those they are supposed to represent has troubling implications for the health of our democracy. The greater the economic distance between average Americans and our lawmakers, the more our government "of the people, by the people" will become a government "of the 1%, by the 1%."

Members of Congress have long been wealthier than average Americans, but the numbers are now gaping. Not only has the median wealth increased, the number of everyday representatives (measured by those who have little besides a home) has shrunk. In 1984, one in five House members had zero or negative net worth excluding home equity; by 2009, that number had dropped to one in 12. 

The trend can be explained in two ways: First, as the Occupy movement has emphasized, the gap between rich and poor in the country at large is on the rise. A new U.S. Census Bureau report reveals the number of people living in poverty last year surged to 46.2 million, or one in six Americans. In 1984, the 90th percentile of U.S. families had six times the net worth of a median family; by 2009 that figure rose to 12 times the median family. 

Second, running for office has become considerably more expensive. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United have made it more likely that only wealthy people can get elected. The average amount spent by victorious House members has quadrupled since 1976; candidates now spend an average of $1.4 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Not only does this mean that elected officials are increasingly out-of-touch with the experience of the average American, it also helps to explain why our politics have gotten so partisan. Studies reveal that income inequality is closely correlated with political gridlock: As the country becomes more economically unequal, it becomes more polarized.

No Labels, an advocacy group promoting moderation in our politics, has introduced a congressional rules reform proposal that could make a small dent. Under their plan, Congress will not get paid unless they can complete the congressional appropriations (spending) process by October 1st. If partisanship takes over, Congress will be penalized financially. 

But if this could ever be implemented (I am doubtful), it would admittedly only be a miniscule step. The Occupy movement has helped to spark a conversation around this important issue, and now we need to begin devising solutions that could address this multi-faceted and immense problem. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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