Commentary: Wealth Gap Puts Congress Out of Touch With Average Americans

Commentary: Wealth Gap Puts Congress Out of Touch With Average Americans

As members of Congress becomes wealthier, Washington lawmakers are becoming increasingly out of touch with average Americans.

Published December 27, 2011

For anyone who has watched the maneuverings of Congress in the last few years, it should come as no surprise that the wealth gap is widening dramatically between lawmakers in Washington and the people they represent.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have reported data that indicate that the net worth of the average member of the House of Representatives skyrocketed. The Post reported that the figure more than doubled, from $280,000 in 1984 to $725,000 in 2009. And over the same period, they reported, the net worth of the average American family declined slightly, from $20,600 to $20,500.

The Times, taking a narrower period of time, said that the median net worth of members of Congress increased 15 percent from 2004 to 2010, rising to $913,000. The Times said that the increase was even more striking considering the fact that the net worth of the richest 10 percent of Americans did not grow significantly.

The numbers also reveal that nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires, a fact that underscores how insulated legislators in Washington are from the economic downturn that has rocked nearly every working-class and middle-class American.

The numbers, as jarring as they are, help explain why so many members of Congress seem so out of touch with the average American. It would certainly explain why there was such a stubborn impasse between the Republican-led House and President Barack Obama recently over extending the payroll tax cut that would provide a financial cushion for 160 million Americans.

Furthermore, it is another factor in the continuing inability of Congress to produce any meaningful legislation what would stimulate job growth. That constitutes a gross neglect of duty, particularly in an economy where unemployment has had a staggering effect on working-class America, not to mention its devastating impact on Black unemployment.

Indeed, the growing wealth gap between Congress and the people they govern becomes even more sobering when viewed through the lens of Black America. Even in the best of economic times, Black unemployment is significantly higher than the national jobless rate. Meanwhile, the ever-wealthier members of Congress are increasingly more distant from those Black communities who need targeted, intensive assistance.

To more and more members of Congress, these communities are increasingly invisible, and their issues increasingly foreign.

The increased gap is likely a result of the fact that running for Congress is more and more becoming an expensive undertaking that only the well-to-do can afford. It’s not something the average school teacher or community activist can afford to pursue.

If nothing else, the figures on the wealth gap should add fuel to the debate on public financing of Congressional campaigns. It is a system that has worked well in New York City, where candidates can participate in the New York City Campaign Finance Board, under which small contributions are matched by public money. It’s time for that kind of program to be adopted more broadly.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Written by Jonathan P. Hicks

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