Congress Is Full of Rich People. How Can They Represent Us?

When I heard the news reports this month claiming that the 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had something like $7,000 in her savings account, my first response was, “Must be nice.”

I probably wasn’t the only millennial to think that. According to an August survey from the finance website Magnify Money, the median millennial household has just $2,430 in savings. So yes, for a member of Congress, a savings account with only $7,000 definitely sounds weird. But for an average person her age? It’s far from eyebrow-raising news. It’s perfectly normal. In fact, it’s relatable.

And that’s what makes this story so important. Relatability has become a commodity in the world of electoral politics, with political candidates going to all sorts of lengths to appear like everyday people to their constituencies. Campaign seasons are rife with feigned drawls, political ads featuring candidates chopping wood and shooting rattlesnakes, casual visits to pizza parlors or bars, and manufactured personas that politicians hope will lead people to identify with them.

Despite the fact that it’s easy to see through, the masquerade goes on. The cameras keep rolling, the music keeps playing, ballots are cast, elections are won and lost. And through it all, many of us have come to accept that the people who hold office are separate from the rest of us — and that the world of electoral politics is not a realm into which everyday people can enter.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to represent New York’s 14th district in the US House of Representatives. The median net worth in that chamber of Congress was $900,000 in 2015, the latest year for which data was compiled. And that figure is almost certainly an underestimation, as members of Congress aren’t required to make public the value of their residences and their contents — the most valuable assets for most Americans.

That figure — $900,000 — is about nine times higher than the median net worth of the average US household, which is $97,300. But if you think that’s high, you might want to take a deep breath, because things get way more skewed in the Senate. In 2015, the median net worth of a US senator was $3.2 million. Again, because of the strange disclosure requirements, these numbers are likely far higher.

So, in light of these figures, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election to Congress suddenly becomes even more groundbreaking. Not only is she a 29-year-old woman of color — but she’s also, to put it bluntly, just as poor as the rest of us. And she’s not the only newly-elected member of Congress that knows what it’s like to live like an “average” person. Ilhan Omar, elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th district, has claimed, for example, that her support for affordable housing is informed by her experience as a renter. And although he didn’t win his candidacy for Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district, ironworker Randy Bryce’s electrifying campaign may have paved the way for future working-class candidates in a district that has been represented by millionaires for decades.

Class is an often overlooked component when we speak of inclusivity and diversity in politics. And yet, with a Congress dominated by individuals who are so far removed from the everyday realities of most Americans, is it any wonder that policy often reflects the interests of the wealthy? Of course, the influence of outside money in politics is an incredibly potent force in shaping what kind of legislation passes through Congress — but the factor of class allegiance cannot be understated.

Just think about it on an individual level. When neither you nor anyone you’ve ever personally known has ever had to worry about being able to afford health care, you’re probably not going to be thinking too much about universal health care legislation. If you’ve never thought twice about being able to send your children to the most expensive universities, the College for All Act might not be what gets you up in the morning. And when the difficulties of unemployment have never been an issue that you or anyone in your social circle has ever dealt with, then you might not think twice about supporting a bill that reduces unemployment benefits.

And this isn’t just a gut feeling. Research has shown that office holders with working-class backgrounds often exhibit economic preferences that are more labor friendly than their counterparts. Simply put, when you are steeped in a world of privilege, your sense of reality is skewed. And this privilege is far from a partisan issue. Of the richest 30 members of Congress, 12 are Democrats.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat representing California’s 12th district, is among those top 30 richest Congress members. Her net worth is $16 million. With this in mind, her headline-grabbing exchange with Trevor Hill — the New York University sophomore who famously asked Pelosi about socialism during a 2017 CNN Town Hall — might not be all that surprising. “We’re capitalist,” Pelosi unapologetically asserted. “And that’s just the way it is.”

But are we? Who really identifies as a capitalist — especially among those that the Democratic Party purports to represent? Sure, we all know people who support the system of capitalism. But actually identifying as a capitalist is a bit different. It reveals something about who you identify with.

This week, Pelosi was nominated to be House Speaker by the Democratic Caucus. For the next two years, at least, the agenda informing the kinds of policy that comes out of the House of Representatives will be dictated by somebody who is 160 times richer than most Americans — and who just happens to identify as a capitalist.

For far too long, the class contours of Congress have been accepted as an inevitable characteristic of our political system. We may not like it, but we all know that the chambers of Congress are destined for the 1 percent. And yet, there’s a glimmer of hope in the revelations surrounding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s savings account and Ilhan Omar’s experience as a renter. Perhaps their presence in the House Chamber will have some influence on their fellow Congress members. Perhaps their election will serve as an inspiration for some, demonstrating that you don’t necessarily have to be wealthy to win elected office.

Finally, perhaps the conversation initiated around Ocasio-Cortez’s finances could spark a larger discussion around just how representative our representatives can ever actually be when they are 10 times as rich as the rest of us.