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Few Blue-Collar Americans Hold Office, and the Reason Is Not Low Pay

Higher salaries don’t get more working-class Americans entering politics.

By Nathan Collins


Former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, pictured in March of 1967. (Photo: Harry Benson/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Most state and local elected officials don’t get paid very well. State legislators, for example, typically keep their non-government jobs while serving because they need the extra income. That raises concerns that the people who can afford to serve in government will be wealthier than average and won’t represent their constituents well. Unfortunately, the obvious solution to this problem—higher salaries—won’t do much to solve the problem, according to a recent study.

To be sure, researchers have long known that low- and middle-income Americans are underrepresented in political positions. And when legislators do get paid more, they’re less likely to pursue other work and more likely to be in step with their constituents’ ideology.

But that doesn’t mean salaries have an effect on officials’ economic diversity, write Duke University’s Nicholas Carnes and University of North Carolina Ph.D. student Eric R. Hansen in American Political Science Review. “Would raising politicians’ salaries actually encourage more people of modest means to seek and hold political office? Although observers routinely argue that it would, there is surprisingly little empirical evidence on this point,” they write.

To address the question, Carnes and Hansen gathered data on state legislators’ salaries as well as their main occupations from two sources: a 1979 Insurance Institute of America survey, and similar surveys run by the National Conference of State Legislators in 1993, 1995, and 2007.

Surprisingly, higher salaries were associated with a smaller number of working-class folks serving in state houses. “In sharp contrast to the idea that pay raises make public office more accessible to the working class, the political representation of workers is worst in states that pay legislators salaries over $75,000 — about 2 percent on average — and best in states that pay legislators next to nothing — about 7 percent on average,” Carnes and Hansen write.

Those results held up after controlling for a variety of demographic and political factors, including a state’s poverty rate, the length of its legislative sessions, and union membership rates (the latter of which is correlated with the number of working-class legislators).

What’s more, it’s not just a matter of who gets elected to office. Data from the National Candidate Survey, which in 2012 asked more than 10,000 candidates what they did for work, revealed that legislators’ salaries had no effect at all on the fraction of working-class candidates, whether they were elected to office, or whether they ran for re-election.

Reformers should take notice, the authors write: “Activists and political observers should stop saying that raising legislative salaries would make holding office more accessible for middle- and working-class Americans or that it would reduce class-based political inequalities. It probably wouldn’t.”