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Rich Politicians, Strapped Citizens

It was reported Wednesday that Mitt Romney holds millions of dollars in the Cayman Islands. Some of the media and political cognoscenti have wondered out loud if Romney is too rich, or too elite to truly represent regular Americans. The funny thing is, every single member of Congress is too rich and too elite to truly represent the people of this nation and yet they’ve all won.

In the people’s chamber of the U.S., composed of small districts in order to draw its elected officials from among the true commoners, the average wealth of a Representative in 2010 was merely worth $5,992,868. In the Senate, where democracy makes allowances for a slightly fancier plebeian voice, the average wealth in 2010 was valued at $13,224,333.09. Median numbers are $768,027 and $2,454,021, respectively.

To compare that with the folks that members of Congress are dutybound to serve, the median American’s net worth in 2010 was $100,000, according to the Times. Data from the 2009 Panel Survey of Consumer Finances tells us that the median net worth, including home equity, for families from the 80th to 89th percentiles is only $302k. It also reports that the families in the wealthiest age group, 55-64, held median net worth of $222k. No matter how you look at it, our members of Congress look pretty close to the 1%.

Even more interesting, when we remove home equity from these numbers, the median American family’s net worth in 2009 was $20,500 while the median House Representative’s was $725,056, according to the Post.  This same article tells us that the blue collar representatives, House Democrats, grew significantly wealthier between 2004 and 2009, by nearly 40%, while Republicans (still the wealthier Representatives), lost around 15%--bringing them both closer to that median figure above.

Does this wealth gap—a gap that should shock those who support rule of, by, and for the people—make a difference in voting? This graphic shows a highly provocative similarity, perhaps enhanced by scaling effects, between growing income inequality in the U.S. and growing political polarization in Congressional voting records. More broadly, recent polls have found that affluent Americans are more likely to care about the deficit than jobs -- with middle class Americans holding the exact opposite view.

It seems to me that trusting millionaires to tackle unemployment, foreclosures and evictions, sick pay, wage theft, and poverty seems foolish. Trusting the wealthy to understand public goods the rest of us actually rely on like healthcare, Social Security, childcare, and education seems unwise.

We have entrusted the full powers of our democracy to people who can’t possibly understand our economic ups and downs. So, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Thank goodness the Supreme Court, that poor but august body, is a little closer to the rest of us with an average wealth of $2,632,787.67.

Next time you call your elected officials, ask them what kind of shoes they wear—they’re not walking in yours or mine.