Although the socioeconomic biases in representation are most apparent at the state and national levels, many of our elected officials start their careers at the local level. There are about half a million elected offices in the United States, from President of the United States to dog catcher of Duxbury, Vermont. In theory, Americans of all stripes are able to run for office and serve their fellow citizens. Yet, analyses looking at the type of people who are elected to office at the federal and state levels often find that most elected officials come from the upper economic stratum of American society. The reason for the socioeconomic biases among those elected to office is related to the barriers that people of modest means have to run for office.
The most obvious of these representation biases is in education. Ninety-five percent of members of Congress have a college degree. In a country where only one-third of the adult population have a college diploma, having a 4-year degree becomes an invisible marker of electability and drastically reduces the pool of who can think of themselves as a candidate. This affects Latino/as in particular since as one-in-six (16 percent) have earned a college diploma.
In the case of Congress the educational barriers are not limited to four-year degrees. About two-thirds of House members and three-quarters of Senators also possess graduate degrees or professional degrees, particularly in law. Forty percent of members of Congress have a law degree, the most overrepresented profession by far.
Aside from coming from an educational elite, the median worth of members of Congress is over $1 million, 18 times the worth of the average American household. Educational and income qualifications are useful for many reasons. For example, research by political scientist Adam Bonica highlights that fundraising networks provide a natural advantage to those with a professional background, particularly in law and business. However, the issue for many potential leaders, particularly in Latino communities, go beyond money to run a campaign.
Having a four-year degree is not just an important economic marker, but the types of occupations that normally require the skills of a college degree are those that provide the sort of stability needed to jumpstart a political career. To run for office, potential candidates need more than just money, which partially explains some of the socioeconomic biases in who gets elected to office. People thinking of running for office also need time.
To be able to seriously think about running for office, people need the ability to support themselves since the time spent campaigning or organizing a potential run may mean losing time and income. In the case of working class Americans, occupations are not likely to provide people with the free time (or disposable income) to dedicate to building networks of supporters to run or later find time to perform their duties as public servants.
Since many of the offices at the local levels that help people start their political careers are voluntary or offer nominal compensation, they will be occupied by people who can afford to lose some income or flexible work schedules. This is why the wealthy and the professional class dominate our politics. It creates a vicious cycle in which some people can envision themselves as leaders, while most cannot even fathom the idea. These invisible barriers to representation distort who runs, who wins, and whose voices are heard. This is why it is important to have a workforce that gets paid living wages, has scheduling stability, and a safety net for hard times. When more members of our population have the ability to run for office, our democracy becomes stronger.