Who Is in the 114th Congress?

History of Unjust Underrepresentation Continues

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On Tuesday, January 6, 2015, the 114th United States Congress began its session. The congress contains new members recently granted office by voters in 2014 mid-term elections. Who are they? Let's take a look at the race and gender composition of our government representatives.

The Washington Post reports that this new congress is about 80 percent male, with the Senate at 80 percent, and the House at 80.6 percent. They are also a cumulative 80 percent white, given that 79.8 percent of the House is white, and a full 94 percent of the Senate is white. In short, the 114th Congress is overwhelmingly composed of white males, which means it is what sociologists call a homogenous population.

Trouble is, the US is not a homogenous population. It is rather heterogeneous, which raises questions about the accuracy of this Congress as a democratic representation of our nation.

Let's parse the numbers. According to US Census data for 2013, women compose slightly more than half of the national population (50.8 percent), and the racial composition of our population is as follows.

  • White non-Hispanic: 62.6%
  • Hispanic or Latino: 17.1%
  • Black or African American: 13.2%
  • Asian: 5.3%
  • Mixed race: 2.4%
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 1.2%
  • Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 0.2%

Now, let's take a closer look at the racial composition of Congress.

  • White non-Hispanic: House, 79.8%; Senate, 94%
  • Hispanic or Latino: House, 7.8%; Senate, 3%
  • Black or African American: 10.1%, Senate, 2%
  • Asian: House, 2.3%; Senate, 1%
  • Mixed race: 0%
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0%
  • Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 0%

The race and gender disparities between the population of the US and this Congress are striking and troubling. Whites are significantly over-represented, while persons of all other races are under-represented. Women, at 50.8 percent of our national population, are also grossly unrepresented among the predominantly male Congress. 

Historical data compiled and analyzed by The Washington Post show that Congress is slowly diversifying. Inclusion of women has grown mostly consistently since the dawn of the 20th century, and has grown more sharply since the late 1980s. Similar patterns are seen in racial diversification. One can't deny the positive nature of this kind of progress, however, this is progress at an incredibly slow and simply inadequate rate. It took a full century for women and racial minorities to reach the sad level of under-representation we suffer today. As a nation, we must do better.

We must do better because there is so much at stake in who composes our government, like how their race, gender, and class positionality frames their values, world views, and assumptions about what is right and just. How can we seriously address gender discrimination and the chipping away of women's reproductive freedom when those who experience these problems are a minority in Congress? How can we effectively address problems of racism like over-policing, police brutality, over-incarceration, and racist hiring practices when people of color are not adequately represented in Congress? We cannot expect white men to fix these problems for us because they do not experience them, and see and live their detrimental effects the way that we do. 

Let's throw economic class into the mix too. Members of Congress receive an annual salary of $174,000, which puts them in the top bracket of income earners, and far above the median household income of $51,000. The New York Times reported in January 2014 that the median wealth of members of Congress was just over $1 million. Meanwhile, the median wealth of US households in 2013 was just $81,400 according to Pew Research Center, and half of the US population is in or near poverty.

A 2014 Princeton study which analyzed policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002 concluded that the US is no longer a democracy, but is an oligarchy: ruled by a small group of elites. The study conclusively found that most policy initiatives are driven and directed by a select few wealthy individuals who are socially connected to our political representatives. The authors wrote in their report, "The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

Is it any wonder that our government has systematically eroded funding for public education, services, and welfare? That Congress will not pass legislation to ensure a living wage for all people? Or, that instead of creating jobs that pay living wages, we have seen a rise in contract, part-time labor devoid of benefits and rights? This is what happens when the rich and privileged rule at the expense of the majority.

It's time for all of us to get in the political game.