Representation Matters: Women & Working-Class Diversity in Congress
By Ashley Sorensen | October 19, 2021
Ashley Sorensen is a PhD student in political science at the University of Minnesota.
Rep. Cori Bush recently reflected on her successful eviction moratorium sit-in on the Capitol steps, stating, “You know when I came here, I used to ask myself a question: ‘Does it matter that I’m here instead of someone else?’” According to the New York Times, Senator Elizabeth Warren responded, “And you’ve now answered that question. It matters that you’re here—not someone else.”
To keep a democratic government functioning, people need to feel that politicians respond to their interests and that they have the resources required to participate in the political process. Trust in government prevents populism, increases voter participation, and predict whether citizens will even abide by laws. Skepticism towards politics, however, has become more prevalent across the United States as income inequality has simultaneously increased. Today the top one percent of American earners hold 16 times more wealth than half of the US population combined; meanwhile only 12 percent of Americans have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in Congress.
One way to make people feel more included in the political process is by having representatives that share their gender, race, or life experiences. For instance, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are both more trusting of the government and more likely to contact their representative when they share the same race/ethnicity. Young women have become more interested in politics when they see other women running for office. Legislators’ personal backgrounds matter in the policy process and for communicating with constituents. Yet, even with the most diverse Congress in history, simply electing more women and BIPOC to Congress has not been enough to foster Americans’ trust in government overall. My research suggests that we might also need a rise in the number of politicians from working-class backgrounds.
Congress: Where the Working Class Isn’t
Despite the common assumption in mainstream media that the working class is made up of white men and rural voters, working class legislators and voters are more likely to be women of color than any other demographic group. Scholars generally consider an individual to be working-class if their annual household income is below $60,000, they don’t have a college degree, and/or they are employed in a working-class job (manual labor, the service industry, clerical work or a union job). And while most of the public is estimated to be part of the working class, the percent of congressional members who have spent part of adulthood in the working class has remained stagnant at two percent.
While most of the public is estimated to be part of the working class, the percent of congressional members who have spent part of adulthood in the working class has remained stagnant at two percent.
Working-class members of Congress have different legislative priorities than their non-working-class counterparts. For example, working-class people and legislators who grew up in the working class have more liberal views on taxation, business regulation, social spending, and labor laws. They are less likely to support free trade, Wall Street, and government bailouts. Across various measured of representation—roll-call votes, number of bill introductions, co-sponsorship rates, and committee participation rates—Congress spends less than three percent of its time on issues related to poverty. Historically, when middle-and upper-income groups have aligned on issues, policies were enacted in Congress, but not when middle-and lower-income groups agreed. And although the bill passage rate is low in general, the interests of the wealthy and a few elites are reflected to a greater extent in bills throughout different stages of the legislative process.
Working-class interests are not only less likely to be adopted by Congress, but also representatives’ desire to learn about these perspectives is limited. Campaign donors were three to four times more likely to get a meeting scheduled and meet with higher-ranked congressional officials than non-campaign donors in a field experiment with U.S. Congress members. Even when accounting for different rates of political participation such as voting, the wealthy are still disproportionately more likely to have their interests represented than the poor. With such thin representation, it’s no wonder a wide range of national surveys show that the working class has less trust in government than the rich.
Testing Representation & Trust
Would greater working-class representation overall, and specifically through women and BIPOC representatives, increase trust among the working class? Drawing on research into the effectiveness of race-class campaign messages, I designed a pair of online experiments to explore these questions. Respondents were randomly assigned to participate in one of two online experiments, in which they read excerpts from made-up news stories about either current or increasing numbers of working-class representatives in Congress.
Whether class is defined by educational achievement, household income, or occupation type, the working class started with lower trust in government than their non-working-class counterparts. But the results from the first experiment showed that greater rates of working-class representation increased the political efficacy and trust of working-class participants across all gender, racial, and class groups. In fact, the treatment increased trust by 36 percent for households earning less than $60,000, by 27 percent for respondents without a bachelor’s degree, and by 65 percent for individuals employed in a working-class job.
And working-class respondents weren’t the only ones to grow more confident when told that the number of working-class legislators was increasing. Trust increased by 48 percent for both households earning more than $60,000 a year and for people employed in non-working-class jobs, and by 20 percent among respondents with a bachelor’s degree. An uptick in the number of working-class people in Congress thus appears to be a win for Americans from different class backgrounds.
The second experiment tested whether it matters if the women and BIPOC getting elected to Congress are from the working class. In this experiment, the control group read a blurb about how more women and BIPOC than ever had been elected to Congress, while the treatment group read a blurb about how the newly elected women and BIPOC were also from the working class.
An increase in gender, racial, and class diversity increased trust in government among respondents with household incomes less than $60,00, respondents employed in working-class jobs, college graduates, and high income earners.
I found that an increase in gender, racial, and class diversity increased trust by 22 percent among respondents with household incomes less than $60,00, by 30 percent among respondents employed in working-class jobs, by 24 percent among college graduates, and by 29 percent among high income earners. Overall, there was a positive and significant increase in trust when measuring class by educational achievement, occupation, and income. This suggests that electing more working-class people to Congress doesn’t have to come at the cost of electing more women and BIPOC.
The Transformational Potential of Working-Class Representation
The results of these two experiments were remarkably consistent: increases in class-based representation improve the trust of the working class. While a recent survey of Democratic and Republican party leaders concluded that working-class individuals were less likely to be recruited to run for office, these findings suggest that our government would benefit from party leaders focusing on class as an important dimension of diversity.
As we’ve seen with Representatives Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, working-class legislators have different priorities with important policy implications for issues like taxes, child support, evictions, and social welfare. Increasing working-class representation in Congress would not only provide us with better insight for solving pressing concerns relating to inequality—it may help address the lack of trust in government more broadly.
Note: The survey experiments were estimated to take 7 minutes and were fielded through Prolific during September 2020. Prolific respondents received $0.81 for their participation. Upon removing participants who did not consent, were not eligible, did not finish, and were debriefed after the experiments, responses from 1,653 participants in the were recorded for this paper. Experiment 1 had 745 participants and Experiment 2 had 908. 26.4 percent of participants identified as people of color and 53.3 percent identified as women or non-binary. 68.1 percent of participants were Democrats, 13.8 percent independents and 18.1 percent were Republicans. 48.1 percent of participants had a bachelor’s degree or higher, 53.5 percent of respondents had annual household incomes greater than $60,000, and 29.4 percent were employed in working-class jobs.
Ashley Sorensen is a PhD Student in political science at the University of Minnesota and a visiting lecturer at Macalester College. She is a 2021 Gender Policy Report-Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Graduate Research Fellow through the Graduate Research Partnership Program of the College of Liberal Arts, an administrative fellow for the U of MN Center for the Study of Political Psychology, and a 2017 Truman Scholar from South Dakota.
Photo by US Department of Labor, licensed under Creative Commons