Does Anyone Speak for the Poor in Congress?
The rich have more tools to influence politics and policy than the rest of Americans, but what about the poorest citizens? In an age of increasing economic inequality, who, if anyone, represents their views and their interests in Congress? Kris Miler finds that Members of Congress in high poverty districts are not the champions of the poor. Instead, Democratic women and minorities from urban districts tend to introduce bills about poverty but have trouble getting them passed, leaving the poor without effective representation even in times of rising poverty. Christopher Ellis finds that Members of Congress are usually more responsive to the opinions of the rich than the poor in their districts, but moderates and Democrats in competitive districts with unions do represent the opinions of the poor. Low-income constituents are only sometimes visible and have a hard time holding their representatives accountable.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest: “Who Represents the Poor in Congress?” For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
We know the rich have more tools to influence politics and policy than the rest of Americans, but what about the poorest citizens? In an age of increasing economic inequality, who, if anyone, represents their views and interests? I talked to Kris Miler of the University of Maryland about her new book, Poor Representation, published by Cambridge.
She finds that members of Congress in high-poverty districts are not the champions of the poor. Instead, democratic women and minorities from urban districts tend to introduce bills about poverty but then have trouble getting them passed, leaving the poor without effective representation even in times of rising poverty.
I also talked to Christopher Ellis of Bucknell University about his latest book, Putting Inequality in Context, published by Michigan. He finds that members of Congress are usually more responsive to the opinions of the rich than the poor in their own districts, but moderates and Democrats in competitive districts with unions do represent the opinions of the poor. Low-income constituents are only sometimes visible and have a hard time holding their representatives accountable.
Neither Ellis nor Miler challenge the conventional wisdom that the poor are poorly represented, but they see the story as a bit more complicated.
Miler: The conventional wisdom is that the poor are not represented, and unfortunately, my research largely confirms that. Although, like I said, I do find that there is some evidence that there are legislators who break from that conventional wisdom, and it’s not always who you think it would be.
Ellis: The conventional wisdom, although it’s not universal in political science, has been most wealthy people get what they want and poor people by and large don’t. And so the book sort of confirms that, these representational differences are real and they exist and they’re important and they have consequences.
But there are two things about this account that I sort of found a little bit unsatisfying. One is that some of the most kind of straightforward explanations weren’t telling the whole story. It wasn’t just a matter of, “Oh, wealthy people donate more money, so they get more influence.” There’s more to the story than that. And second, there’s sort of some doubt on the idea that we should expect that the rich get what they want to be a monolithic thing. And so some research by Peter Enns and Chris Wlezien and some others sort of cast doubt on that concept generally.
But we also know that America’s a diverse place and congressional districts and counties are diverse places too, and Congress members in different places face different incentives and represent different kinds of people. And so there’s no reason to expect that this kind of general finding, which I think very much exists in the United States that the poor are less well-represented, would apply everywhere, would apply in the same way everywhere.
So the book sort of I think confirms the general idea that, “Look, wealthy people are doing better in American politics from the perspective of representation,” but also sort of says, “Look, maybe we should dig under the hood a little bit and figure out why that’s the case and where it’s the case.”
Grossmann: Miler set out to find who in Congress is trying to address poverty.
Miler: In this book, I focus on two questions: (1) are the poor represented in Congress, and (2) how does that representation occur? And my vantage point coming to it is somebody who’s interested in legislative process and legislative behavior and kind of unpacking the process of representation, including the outcomes but not only the outcomes.
So I think what I look at kind of broadly in the book is what has the attention been to the poor going back to the 1960s in many cases and specifically focusing on what Congress has done on issues that are relevant to the poor.
Grossmann: And Ellis set out to show why the geographic context of each district matters.
Ellis: The most important finding in low-income people in particular, for everyone, but for low-income people in particular, where you live matters how your government treats you.
So I sort of start the book with a little vignette about differences in school funding across states. And so a school in Minnesota provides sort of lots of kind of redistribution to lower income school districts and high-poverty school districts. Schools in Alabama, which is the other side of the vignette, don’t, but in some cases sort of allow the wealthier areas within towns and municipalities to actually secede from the school district and form their own. And so it’s sort of an intuitive way of saying, “Look. Low-income students face challenges everywhere, but in some places, those challenges are kind of remediated by government action, and in some places, they’re actually exacerbated by government action, so local context matter.”
And so if we sort of take this to the representation angle, again, thinking that representation, democratic representation by your legislator, by your policy maker, sort of core to how democracy works, then we might also find variation there. That depending on where you live, low-income people might be able to sort of get what they want from their Congress member or get them to listen or get them to pay attention to their concerns, and in other places, Congress members may have incentives to ignore them or gainsay them or the whole deal. So it’s sort of trying to apply this idea of context to the question of representation.
Grossmann: Miler sees both books as about recognizing that the divide between the poor and everyone else is important, not just the divide between the 1% and the rest.
Miler: Our emphasis has tended to be on the rich versus everyone else, and that’s an important dividing line. I mean, there are real differences there in terms of political influence of those at the very top. And so I don’t take away from that frame at all, except the kind of unfortunate thing is that what that tends to do is lump everybody else together. And so if we think about the Occupy Wall Street notion of 1% versus the 99%, the trick is that the 99% has some really different interests and that encompasses a lot of people, and so when we start thinking about how this effects policy making and policy makers, we want to acknowledge those differences.
And so I think that’s the risk with too much emphasis just on the rich versus everyone else. I think what happens is that it really crowds out attention from the poor. And so that’s what I hope to do with this book is to kind of refocus some of our attention about inequality in general on that bottom group and think more about whether they’re getting represented in their specific needs.
Grossmann: The big difference is whether to think about representation as about the interests of the poor or their opinions on policy, which may not always match. Ellis made the case for using opinions.
Ellis: Every time I give a public talk about elections or anything, especially to a liberal audience, the question is always, “Why don’t the poor vote in their own interests?” And I always sort of have to say, “Well, it’s not really that simple because you don’t know their interests, they do.” And so that’s an interesting question, right? I personally view representation as let’s take constituent’s preferences as what they are and make sure that and/or to hope that elected officials try to represent them as best as possible.
In some cases, it is true that poor people sort of advocate for policies that may go against their own economic interests. And so I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think that the way to get closer to answer that question is by trying to figure out why people believe what they believe.
Grossmann: And Miler made the case to look at interests.
Miler: For me, when I think about representation, I really think about the interest as being critical to political representation, and here it’s kind of interest as being something different than the public opinion. And I think about interests as kind of being the issues that are relevant to people’s lives, to things that directly effect them, that are connected to our experiences, and how we experience government is often by how our interests are affected.
And I also think that there is a long tradition in the political science literature of looking at representation of interest, and this is theoretical, thinking of work by Pitkin and others, and also in the congressional kind of empirical literature thinking about this. So interests also tend to be more steady. The interests you have as a manufacturing worker, as a coal worker, doesn’t change that much over time. It’s less likely to be manipulated by campaigns or media. It is less likely to be variations in kind of the amount of information. We tend to know our own interests pretty well.
Miler: And so when I’m thinking about this for legislators, I think if you’re a member of Congress representing 700,000 people, it can be hard to stay on top of opinions and the changes in opinions, and there can be some variation in that. In contrast, I think when we think about members representing interests, I think it’s quite realistic to expect members of Congress to understand the interests of his or her district.
Grossmann: But she sees similar findings with both approaches.
Miler: One of the most exciting things, I think, is the fact that we both find some similar differences despite coming at these questions from different perspectives or different vantage points. So the fact that we both find party differences, and especially these rural/urban differences, I think really speaks to the underlying reality for folks interested in and who care about inequality in politics and are interested in kind of how the poor are represented in American politics.
The fact that you can come at it with different data, different types of analysis, different kind of theoretical perspectives on what representation means and yet still find some of the same things to me really should increase our sense that these are important things to be looking at. And kind of no matter how you’re shaking this, it’s still there. And so I really see this as kind of shining or kind of focusing scholars from both the kind of more opinion-based and the more interest-representation-based way of looking at some of these same issues.
Grossmann: And Ellis agrees that they reach similar conclusions focused on the importance of surrogates.
Ellis: There’s a couple things I think sort of concur with what I’m saying. One is that she sort of finds that when the poor get represented, they rely on surrogates, people who aren’t necessarily poor, but are nevertheless advocating for these kinds of interests. So I focus on unions in my book as a group. Union members are not poor by either of our definitions, but still advocate for policies that may benefit low-income citizens.
The other part that I sort of concur with is that some of these surrogates are not necessarily interested in poverty directly, but are sort of interested in this idea of intersectionality and race and gender and things like that, and so they’re sort of representing lower income citizens, but doing it in a way that maybe isn’t ideal for what most of these people want.
Grossmann: Let’s dig deeper into each study, starting with Miler. She first sought to dispel the notion that the poor are invisible.
Miler: I look at all the State of the Unions from all the presidents starting 1960 through President Kennedy all the way through the last of President Obama’s speeches, and I do an analysis of kind of who gets talked about in these State of the Unions. And I find that the poor get mentioned frequently by both Republicans and Democrats.
And this is important because the audience for State of the Union is members of Congress. They’re all sitting there. It’s held on Capitol Hill. And so if in the State of the Union, the poor are getting mentioned frequently by Republicans and Democrats, it’s really hard to say Congress is unaware of them. Similarly, I look at the party platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties and do the same type of analysis, and again, I find both parties are mentioning the poor in their official platforms.
So the first real takeaway is that the poor are politically visible, and therefore, it’s reasonable to expect that poverty-relevant issues would come up in Congress given that there are 40 million poor Americans.
Grossmann: Then she looked at representation by Congress as a whole, representation of district constituents by each member, and representation by others.
Miler: I look at three forms of representation. The first of these is collectively, so whether Congress as a whole represents the nation as a whole. Here, I’m thinking about does the number of bills Congress takes up in a session overall, how does that relate to the number of Americans living in poverty in a given year? So that kind of macro or more aggregate type of representation.
Then I also look dyadically, which is what we’ve been talking a little bit about, and I think is the most common way to think about congressional representation. So here is does a legislator represent the district that elected him or her to Congress? So do members from high-poverty districts sponsor more bills related to poverty than members from low-poverty districts?
And as I kept turning up with basically null finding, so I’m not finding much representation in collective ways or dyadically, I approach this third form of representation that I was interested in called surrogate representation, which is a little less common in terms of the literature, but basically is about whether or not legislators act on behalf of citizens who don’t live in their district. So this would be members from a wealthier district sponsoring poverty legislation. It’s not directly related to their constituents, but it’s serving people and representing poor in other districts. So those are kind of the three ways that I approached it.
Grossmann: She concentrated on bills related to poverty, which she defined broadly but required a focus on the poor.
Miler: What I did was I used the Policy Agendas Project data, which takes all the bills introduced in the House, and I’m here looking at the period from 1983 to 2014, so just over 30 years. And they code all the bills by content into 22 topic categories and then 220 sub-topics. And so what I did was using their data coding scheme was went through and figured out which of these sub-topics were applicable in kind of targeting the poor.
And so what I did was I included, again, some that we would expect, so things like social welfare programs, food stamps, food assistance, school lunch, things of that sort. Also things that deal with housing, so looking at affordable housing programs, energy assistance programs to the low income and things of that sort. Also looking at programs for the homeless as part of that.
Then I wanted to also include some education programs, but again, only education policies that specifically targeted low-income students or low-income schools, so focusing on things like Head Start, adult literacy programs, rural education, bilingual education needs for low-income communities, things of that nature.
And then to your point, all of these seem to have a bit of a left or Democratic lean to them, and I didn’t want that to be the case. So I also was careful to seek out things that were more bipartisan, more Republican, even more conservative, so there that brought me to focus a lot more on economic and employment types of policies. So job training policies, skills, work incentives, things of that sort. Also looking at unemployment and more general macroeconomic programs with the idea being that Republicans or conservatives …
With the idea being that Republicans or conservatives may be more likely to be trying to address poverty through programs that would increase employment. Also, that would be more tax-based, so I made sure that these policies were not just about starting new social programs but, also, could be things like an individual tax credit like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and that program provides a tax credit that targets low-income working parents by reducing their income tax burden to help incentivize working.
Grossmann: She wanted to find out whether Congress responds to poverty but came up mostly empty.
Miler: As a whole and as individual district representatives, Congress does not represent the poor. Most notably, legislators from districts with more poor constituents are not more active on poverty issues. What this means is that a member who represents a district with 20% poverty and a member who represents a district with only 2% poverty that doesn’t help us understand what they do in terms of sponsoring poverty legislation or voting on poverty legislation.
There’s no evidence that that is important, which is really striking, because we generally think that there’s a relationship between who’s in the district, and what members do.
Grossmann: Why don’t members from high-poverty districts focus on poverty? [Miler 00:16:22] thinks it’s other interests and lacking personal perspective.
Miler: I think that legislators are actively choosing to be active on other issues, and they’re not choosing to be active on poverty issues. I think some of that can be attributed to the multitude of issues that are coming at members of Congress and their offices, and the role that organized interests and others can play in magnifying some of those voices, which does not serve the poor well in a relative sense, because they are under-represented in the interest group community and in advocacy, and so forth.
I think some of it also reflects the fact that members of Congress generally don’t have a lot of personal experience of poverty. Their work has shown that members of Congress tend to not be representative of all income groups and all classes. I think that, that also removes some kind of personal experience that can be a strong motivator for some members.
Grossmann: She focused on those members that do focus on poverty.
Miler: There are some legislators who are active on poverty issues, and I call them champions of the poor that consistently are bringing issues related to poverty to the Congressional agenda. This doesn’t mean that their efforts always succeed, but they are doing the work of representing the poor. There’s not a lot of them, but they are there. I think that give us some hope moving forward.
Grossmann: The champions of the poor came in several varieties but were mostly Democrats.
Miler: Are there members that consistently are sponsoring bills addressing poverty over the course of their career, and the notion that that type of consistency would make them what I call a champion of the poor, somebody the poor could count on to be their voice. I do find that that group is disproportionately made up of Democrats, of minorities, particularly, African American legislators, and, also, of female legislators.
I think the reasons for why you’ve got this set, a relatively small set I should say, the strongest champions of the poor are only about 35 members out of 1400 members that served during this 30-year period, but I think there’s largely two reasons for that.
One is simply that I think that many legislators come to Congress, because they care about public policy, and they care about issues, and they have a sense of how they’d like to make things better. For some of these members, I think that their activity on poverty issues is quite simply just rooted in their own interests, not meaning their own self-interest, but their own interest in policy area, and/or their sense of what’s the right thing to be doing and wanting to address poverty.
But, there are substantive overlaps about the types of issues that affect minority communities, that affect women, and that affect the poor. For some minority and female legislators, I think that that intersection really serves the poor well. It helps to bring those members to be more active on issues of poverty, and it also gives their work a distinctive perspective.
Notably for women, the types of poverty issues that they tend to sponsor tend to be more gendered issues. Thinking about things like if somebody, if a working mother loses a parent, but in many cases this is statistically more likely to be a working mother loses their job, say, due to sexual harassment, how does that get accommodated in work requirements for food stamps or welfare benefits, thinking about child care issues, some of these issues that we might consider to be a more gendered perspective on poverty.
There are these old school Democrats, as I call them. These are largely white, male Democrats that are from the Northeast and the Midwest. They largely came to power or came to Congress before the 1990s, and so they have a different, more traditional democratic perspective on things.
A good example of this is a former Representative, Ted Weiss, of New York. His own district was not particularly poor, but he had very much a belief in a more active role for government in helping the less fortunate, and this was a role shared by his constituents. He was very active on poverty issues, including, homeless issues.
Another group would be Democratic women, and these both include white women and, also, minority women. As I mentioned, they tend to focus on more gendered poverty issues, although, not exclusively.
A good example here is former Representative Patsy Mink from Hawaii. Her own district, again, not an especially high-poverty district, but she really saw herself as a voice for the poor and for women more broadly than just those in her own district. I think again, here she was somebody that sponsored a lot of legislation. She was a liberal activist. She actually served Congress in two different periods, the ’60s and ’70s and then came back in the 1990s and early 2000s, and was consistent across her career in this way. That’s one example.
To round off the Democrats, before getting to I think the catchier, which is those Republicans, urban, black Democrats are another clear group of champions. These are a really interesting group in that they often do represent poor districts. This is a group that are both surrogates, but also provide some dyadic representation. They are more likely to come from urban districts and urban poor districts.
A good example here is Representative Gus Hawkins of California who was a real champion for a lot of broad, anti-poverty measures during his career. Things, including, education, jobs, housing, he was particularly active, of course, on Head Start and the Hawkins-Stafford Act to close the education achievement gap.
Now, this fourth category is perhaps the more surprising one, which are a group of Republicans that I call indigo Republicans, because they come mostly from blue or purple states. They tend to be a little bit more urban than others.
I guess, one example of them might be Representative Bill Goodling who was a Republican representative from Pennsylvania. He sponsored a lot of legislation addressing issues like literacy. But, also, these indigo Republicans have a more business-oriented approach that really reflects the partisan difference here.
I was really interested in looking at the types of bills that they sponsor, because it tends to be distinctive from these other categories I found. These members are not representing poor districts, so they are surrogates. Their policy proposals tend to focus on things like how to use the tax code to address issues related to poverty. A lot of support for programs like I mentioned, the EITC, the Earned Income Tax Credit, is a good illustration of the type of poverty legislation that attracted support and initiative from these types of indigo Republicans as well.
Grossmann: Here’s the kicker. Those who introduced poverty-oriented bills couldn’t get them passed.
Miler: Here we’ve got these handful of members, a couple dozen, who are pretty consistent in sponsoring bills that addressed poverty. Then, the next part of this is, well, what happens to those bills? They’re invested in being champions and being a voice for the poor. Does that help them get successfully through the process?
What I find, unfortunately, is that it does not. These efforts do not result in more successful legislation. Champions are more likely to sponsor poverty-related bills, but they are not more likely to pass their legislation through the full process.
The reason for this is the institutional structure of the House, particularly, the importance of the majority party and, also, the committee system. When looking at which bills actually pass the chamber, the key factors are is the legislator in the majority party, whether they serve on the committee to which the bill was referred, and, then, also, whether they hold a leadership role, either in the party or the committee. These positions of institutional advantage are what really explain which poverty-related bills pass and which ones don’t.
Grossmann: How does the picture change when we look at the opinions of the poor and not just poverty issues? Christopher Ellis reminds us that the poor often share the opinions of other groups. But, it’s when they don’t that it matters.
Ellis: We tend to way overstate the differences in opinion between wealthy and poor citizens. That the differences regardless of issue are a matter of degree rather than magnitude. That lots of issues in American politics don’t really [inaudible 00:25:07] class interest directly. Things like spending on health care, education are things that everybody cares about, so there’s not a whole lot of difference there. Even the stuff that’s directly related to class interest, things like welfare, we find some differences that are larger but still a degree rather than magnitude thing.
It turns out that actually some of the issues related to culture, you mentioned gay rights, are where some of the biggest differences are. What does that mean for representation? Well, one of the things I find in the book, and I think others have said this too, is that when opinion differences are bigger, representational differences are bigger.
What that means is the fact that low-income and high-income citizens are not that differentially well-represented. It may actually be coincidental, because they both usually want the same things.
There’s this issue of opinion convergence between wealthy and poor. But, in the cases like you mentioned with welfare and gay right where we don’t see that, then we see bigger representational differences emerge. Again, opinions are reasonably similar across classes on most issues, but when they diverge, that’s when politicians have to make a choice, and that’s what, at least my work finds that in many cases what they do is represent wealthy citizens over poor citizens.
Grossmann: He looked at matches between members of Congress and their constituents in two ways: liberal or conservative political ideology and opinions on specific legislation.
Ellis: I’m using two measures that are bad, but they’re bad in different ways. I think if you find the same result using both of them, you can deal with some of those weaknesses.
One is ideology. We have a long-standing history in political science, DW-NOMINATE scores, of placing Congress members on a left-right scale based on their voting behavior. There’s a zero to one, so you can norm this down to a zero to one scale. Zero being the most liberal Congress member, one being the most conservative.
We also asked citizens where they placed themselves on ideological scales. With a little bit of hocus-pocus and some heroic assumptions, you can scale these things together and say, “Look, there’s a left for citizens and a left for Congress members and a right for both of those groups.” We can look to see how closely citizens’ views are connected to those of their Congress members.
Again, there’s problems with this. You’re comparing voting to what citizens say on surveys and things like that, but it passes the eye test as left is left and right is right.
To deal with some of the limitations of that, I also use a measure that relies on connections between what Congress members actually do on specific matters of public policy. We look at how they vote on a small number of key issues. Whether it’s to end the war in Iraq or to increase welfare spending, whatever it happens to be, to increase the minimum wage, and what citizens say their Congress member should have done in those circumstances.
Again, there’s still some problems. We’re dealing with comparing survey questions to actual behavior but trying to triangulate around this idea that citizens who want their Congress member to do something and have their Congress member do those same things are better represented, than citizens who want their Congress member to do something, and their Congress member does the opposite thing. Trying to compare, not apples to apples by any stretch, but compare what citizens want to what their members actually do.
Again, this is almost impossible to do perfectly, but using a bunch of measures, you can maybe, again, triangulate around the problem and try to get a sense of what representation looks like.
Grossmann: The biggest factors in representation were competition, visibility, and moderation.
Ellis: Are lower-income citizens segregated from the rest of their district in ways that they don’t get opportunities to participate? Do they have organizations? I focus on unions in the book, but there are others that are lobbying on their behalf. Congress members can literally see them and see what they want. In places where lower-income citizens are more visible to their Congress members, they tend to get better represented.
The second thing is whether they’re relevant. The work of, thinking of Karen Jusko in Europe, basically, asked the question, when do policy makers actually need to care about the poor? Well, they need to care about the poor when they’re necessary to win, to build a winning coalition.
In some places that are competitive, or where there’s a large number of low-income citizens, then you really need their votes in order to win. In some cases, you can just disregard them. In places that are more competitive, we see, when every vote counts, then Congress members have to pay attention to their constituents, as opposed to trying to fulfill other goals, because they need to win re-election.
The last thing is moderation. What we find, what I find in this book, and we find in other research is that lower-income citizens are one, typically more moderate in terms of politics than wealthier citizens on either side of the political spectrum. They’re also what we might call less ideologically constrained. They’re not consistently liberal or conservative, but they hold left views on some things and right views on other things.
But they hold left views on some things and right views on other thing, and those views don’t really fit within modern polarized politics at all. Right? So if you have a more moderate Congress member, or you have someone who has to be attentive to the needs of their moderate constituents, then that also tends to represent the views of the poor little bit better.
Grossmann: The urban poor were also better represented, matching their higher level of participation.
Ellis: The basic point is that, look, in high income areas … There’s other research that kind of supports this too, but in high income areas there’s two things. One is sort of physically easier to participate, right? That polling places are easier to get to. The lines are shorter and things like that. Second, there’s also social norms of participation, right? That voting is what people do. It’s just the way things work.
So even if you’re a low income citizen in those kinds of areas, then you pick up on these social norms, and also can take advantage of this ease and convenience. In lower income areas, right? The physical barriers to participation are harder, but there’s also this less of a sense of political ethicacy, right? Less of a sense that my vote is going to make a difference. My neighbors don’t do it, so why should I? And things like that.
Again, if you have income and have means to overcome this at the individual level, then that’s different. But if you’re relying, and all people do regardless of income level, relying in some ways on social norms and contextual things to decide whether participation is something you should do or not, then it’s just harder for people in those areas. Right? So in wealthier areas there’s a norm of participation that people pick up on. In lower income areas, maybe that’s not there. So it becomes harder to overcome those other kinds of barriers.
Grossmann: Like Miller, Ellis found that Republicans don’t represent the poor as well, but that Democrats don’t make up for it.
Ellis: Republicans are worse, right? In terms of representing the needs of the poor. That probably shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. But it’s not like Democrats are making up that gap the other way. Right? So if they’re the party that’s supposed to be representing the interests of low income constituents, they’re not really doing that, right? Or at least not at the expense of upper income citizens. So Republicans have an upper income bias that we might expect. Democrats don’t have the bias towards lower income citizens that might counteract that.
Grossmann: But the real under-representation came from more extreme Republicans given increasing polarization. And like moderation, most of the kinds of things that improve representation for the poor seemed to be on the decline.
Ellis: In cross sectional one year at a time analysis, we find that more unionized districts, are more equally represented constituents. More income equal districts, more equally represented constituents, and on and on. More moderate districts have more moderate Congress members represent more constituents, more equally. And all the things that might lead to more equal representation of the poor are declining over time.
Unions are going away. Parties and becoming more polarized. Income is becoming more unequal. So again, I can’t say all of these things are the definitive cause. But I think it’s at least worth noting that the stuff that provides a check on just representations the rich at the expensive of everyone else, those things are becoming weaker over time.
Grossmann: One reason Ellis points to, is that the poor don’t seem to punish their members of Congress for misrepresentation.
Ellis: If you’re not being well represented, then why don’t you do something about it? What I find, and there’s reasons for this too, but find that, look, low income citizens are less likely to punish Congress members either through their approval or through a vote for them, for representing them poorly. On average, right? If a high income citizen sees that they’re not getting what they want, then they’ll view their Congress member less favorably, and low income citizens are less apt to do that.
So part of this is sort of maybe looking at the issue of representation as a demand side problem. That if you don’t show your Congress member that you care that you’re not being represented, then they being a rational reelection seeking person, really has no incentive to listen to you. So we’re sort of trying to unpack a little bit, why that might be the case. And again, are there contexts where low income citizens are encouraged to hold their Congress member more accountable. Because if you’re not well represented and you don’t care, then there’s no incentive for any of that to change.
Grossmann: They also tend to want their values, and not just their interests represented.
Ellis: Ideology and issue attitudes are connected enough that we can make sense of politics by looking at one or the other. We still have this weird gap between people who call themselves conservatives, but support liberal economic policies. So maybe that’s why conservatives get elected, and maybe that’s why the economic policy isn’t quite as liberal.
But I think one thing we also know from this, not just my work on use of lower income citizens, is that they want their values represented as much as they want their policy preferences represented. It’s kinda seems weird saying this in the Trump era, but the commitment to traditional family life in America the way it was, and all this other stuff, I think that’s at least as important to people as what government does in terms of policy.
So I think that that very much still matters, right? That citizens, they care about whether taxes go up or down. They care about whether the schools are funded or not. But they also care about whether government, at a more instinctual level, looks the way they want it to look.
Grossmann: And Ellis was not expecting much change from the new Democratic controlled House.
Ellis: Polarization isn’t going away. So the Democratic takeover of Congress might be important at the margins. But again, I mean two things, one, polarization continues at its runaway pace. I don’t see any way that changes in the near term. It’s not just Congress members becoming more extreme, it means there’s less grounds to get anything done. Right?
There’s less grounds for compromise. To the extent that low income citizens are less interested in fighting proxy ideological battles, and really just want some pragmatic things to make life better. That’s less likely to happen in a polarized Congress. Right. So, no, I don’t see a whole lot changing in the near term.
Grossmann: Miller, on the other hand, sees some potential for the issue agenda to change, though not the results.
Miler: So I do think that the Democratic Party taking control in the house is important because both the partisan dynamic of it. But also, because as you pointed out, it’s going to be a very diverse majority party with greater representation of the types of legislators that are more likely to advocate on poverty issues. And to bring these types of issues to the table.
So because of that, I do think that these members are more likely to sponsor legislation that raises issues related to poverty. And to poorer Americans experience and their interests and their needs than otherwise. So if we’re looking at what is the congressional agenda? What are the issues on the table? I would anticipate that these members will bring those issues there, and I think that’s an important step.
I think that the loss of Indigo Republicans matters, particularly for the types of legislation that are in the conversation, because Republicans do bring a unique perspective from the door. Not Unique, I guess, just different perspective than the Democrats, to how to address poverty. I think the loss of Indigo Republicans will take some of that perspective out of the conversation, in a way that perhaps isn’t good for the broader policy making discussion and dialogue.
I’m more optimistic about the agenda and less optimistic about the outcome, because part of this is the internal structure of kind of the processes we talked about. We still have divided government, so you’re going to have the Democratic house trying to work with the Republican senate and a Republican president. So I think for any legislation, including poverty legislation, that’s going to make success difficult.
Grossmann: So what can we do to improve representation of the poor? Miller sees a few lessons for interest groups.
Miler: It would help the poor have a louder voice in the interest group community. This is a bit of a Pollyanna-ish takeaway to simply say, “Well, we need more interest groups.” So I think a, perhaps smaller, but more practical takeaway point might be [inaudible 00:38:12] that are out there, that are working for the poor, and advocating for poverty issues to be addressed, need to really think about who to target to work with, where those partnerships might be.
Hopefully, my work suggests that it’s not always the usual suspects that you might want to partner up with. There are these members that don’t come from poor districts, but that would be really valuable partners for advocates and outside organizations. So that might be something that could be a useful takeaway.
I also think that the increasing diversity of Congress is something to keep an eye on. So folks that are interested in that, and perhaps active in recruiting citizens to run for Congress, I think that, that increased diversity should go some way to increasing surrogate representation of the poor. And certainly, also, any efforts to recruit people that have a more modest beginnings themselves. More modest life experiences, and to bring that to Congress would be useful.
I think the other thing to keep an eye on is just what happens with all this populist rhetoric that’s bouncing around politics today. It is on both sides, which if one is an optimist, you could imagine some place for coming together, and both parties seeing it in their interest to talk about issues that relate to poverty and to the near poor. I think both President Trump in 2016, Senator Sanders in 2016, and since then has brought attention to.
But the perhaps more cynical side, I would also say that in the two years since those two brought a lot of populous rhetoric to the national conversation, there has not been a lot of action on poverty issues. So I think we gotta wait and see, but I wouldn’t hold your breath, I suppose.
Grossmann: Ellis says, we need to make the concerns of the poor and their moderation more visible.
Ellis: The big takeaway from the book is the visibility part, right? That low income citizens may not make themselves as visible to you, either physically or in terms of understanding their concerns, as other people might. This might be subtle, right? It’s not just receiving a check in the mail. But it’s getting a letter or maybe residential segregation that means you don’t hold a town hall there, and things like that.
So if you care about this, right? Trying to bridge that divide. And if they’re not going to come to you, then maybe you need to come to them and understand their term. The second thing I would say, is that, again, low income citizens are not particularly well served in a highly polarized ideologically constrained far left, far right environment. Right? That they have mix of left and right views. It’s not as simple as culturally conservative and economically liberal, but it’s sort of that.
So trying to understand those concerns and represent them is difficulties of real stylized example, right? Joe Manchin, who represents one of the least well off states in the country, but just got reelected, right? In the state that Trump won by 45,000 percentage points, or whatever. He listens to his constituents right?
When they want protection for preexisting conditions, like a tax cut for the rich, he’ll do that. When they want to get Brett Kavanaugh confirmed, he’ll do that too. Right? So that’s the kind of representation, just to pick one example, but that’s the kind of representation that works.
Grossmann: Both scholars are continuing their work on representation. Miller’s next step is to focus on the under-representation of the rural poor.
Miler: It was really something that jumped out. I think that it’s really meaningful, both from a representation standpoint and from a policy standpoint. Because there are really different interests that the rural poor and the urban or suburban poor have. So, when we think about issues like housing or education, it means something quite different to think about issues of affordable housing in a metropolitan area, or a more urban area.
Then to think about some of the issues that affect the rural poor, it might be simply access to housing, right? Or distances to a school that provides breakfast, or a headstart program. So I think the under-representation, and this is not to suggest that the urban poor or the suburban poor, have all their interests being heard. All poor Americans are under-represented when it comes to our politics, but the rural poor seem to be especially underrepresented. I think that’s in part from my perspective because the surrogate representatives are rarely from rural districts.
Grossmann: Ellis plans to focus on how citizens learn from their representatives, and what they want from them.
Ellis: Let’s try to figure out why elected officials aren’t punished more for representing certain constituents poorly. Whether it’s by income or by race or whatever else. So part of that is figuring out why people believe what they believe. But part of that is trying to understand at a deeper level where citizens get information about what their Congress member does. Because we’re making this assumption that people … they’re not reading Congressional Quarterly, but basically know where their Congress member stands, and what they’re up to, and things like that.
That assumption is certainly not true everywhere. So let’s figure out where citizens are getting information, how they perceive their congress members, how they react to them, the kinds of things they’re voting on.
The second part of this I think is Jeff Harden’s work. He’s at Notre Dame now. But looks at what kind of representation citizens want, right? Which is sort of the unanswered question and focusing on policy here, which I think is important, but maybe citizens care less about that. And just the potholes repaired and things like that. So if they’re getting represented that way, then maybe it doesn’t matter whether you vote to extend funding for a war or something like that.
So let’s try to figure out at the surface level what citizens are actually asking for their Congress members, and what they’re learning about what the Congress members actually do.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Christopher Ellis and Chris Miller for joining me. Please check out their books, Putting Inequality in Context and Poor Representation. Then join us next time.