Representation Matters by Noah Westfall

Every decade the United States conducts a national census to count the population and identify demographic trends. The recent 2020 census revealed notable population changes including a decrease in the proportion of the population that identifies as White-alone and a dramatic increase in the proportion of the population identifying as multiracial. Now, two years later as the country approaches the 2022 federal midterm elections, this article will briefly profile congressional, federal executive, and judicial branch positions based on several sociodemographic characteristics to assess government representation and whether or not it reflects the characteristics of the broader public. 

The State of Congressional Representation: 

Today, nearly 40 percent of the entire US population identify with a race/ethnicity other than white. If representative one would expect nearly twice as many federal lawmakers to identify as a racial/ethnic minority. The 117th Congress is the most racially/ethnically diverse in history. According to the Pew Research Center 124 out of 535 lawmakers or nearly a quarter (23%) of all members of Congress are racial/ethnic minorities. Despite the growth in representation among federal lawmakers, it is clear the current racial/ethnic representation of Congress does not reflect the current demographics of the general United States population, especially the rapidly growing multi-racial population, which grew by 276 percent since 2010. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2020 the number of people identifying as more than one race dramatically increased from 2.9 percent (9 million people) in 2010 to over 10 percent (33 million people) of the entire US population in the most recent 2020 census. That means about 1 in 10 people identify as mixed race. 

In the 117th Congress, Pew also noted four multi-racial members of Congress: Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA), Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY), Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), and Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-WA), making up less than 1 percent of Congress. Rep. Robert Scott is only the second African-American elected to Congress from Virginia and is the first American of Filipino ancestry to serve in Congress. Rep. Marilyn Strickland is the first African-American representative from Washington State to serve in the US Congress and one of the first Korean-American women elected. Rep. Ritchie Torres and Rep Antonio Delgado identify as Black and Hispanic. (Click here for more demographic data on US House of Reps). Congress is becoming more diverse but if Congress was representative of current demographics, we would expect roughly 50 legislators in Congress to be of mixed descent.

Congress is becoming more diverse, but Politico reports Hill staffers remain predominantly white. Staffers are responsible for a majority of the substantive policy and legislative analysis that happens in a congressional office. According to Politico there are currently only two Black chiefs of staff in the Senate and only four Latinos. Furthermore, bias from more senior level staffers directed toward Asian American staffers may have caused them to be overlooked for promotional opportunities on the Hill due to a “perceived meekness.” This is nothing new as gender and racial stereotypes intersecting with antiquated workplace norms hinder growth among Asian Americans, particularly women in senior leadership roles. Asian women have reported being viewed by others as incapable of leadership and submissive or passive. Furthermore, women have reported facing retaliation or negative feedback when they exhibit behaviors that would be praised in others. Maya King, politics reporter for Politico writes, “If staffers don’t represent the communities they are meant to serve, advocates say, it undermines lawmakers’ attempts to solve the issues unique to those communities.” Ensuring a representative legislature is also not guaranteed. Harsh voter suppression laws disproportionately impact people of color, young people, and people with disabilities, undermining the pursuit of a more representative democracy and legislature. If our legislature looked more like the U.S, would it still vote in our best interest?

Race/ethnicity is not the only factor when considering the representation of our elected officials in Congress. One of the other notable factors is lack of representation from women. Despite making up half the US population, women only make up a quarter of all members of the 117th Congress. While the percentage of women in Congress is growing, the United States continues to lag behind other countries, ranking 100 out of 191 according to the Interparliamentary Union. We should expect roughly twice as many lawmakers to identify as women. 

According to LGBTQ Victory Institute’s 2021 Out for America report, there are nearly 1000 elected officials that identify as LGBTQ or about .19% of all elected officials, despite making up an estimated 4.5 percent of the entire US adult population. This includes 11 members of Congress that identify as LGBTQ. The Victory Institute estimates needing to elect just over 28,000 more government officials at all levels of government to be reflective of the general population, including electing 19 more members of Congress that identify as LGBTQ. 

Economic privilege also impacts the overall representation of elected officials in the federal legislature. Most of our federal elected officials are economically privileged and may not reflect the socio economic experiences of the average American. The median net worth of members of Congress was just over a million dollars, compared to 121,000 dollars, the median net worth of the general US population. Furthermore, according to an article from VOX, while working class people make up about half of the US population, they make up only 2 percent of Congress, which may have significant implications on the policies that are moved through Congress. Legislators are often influenced by their social class, especially their economic policies. Nicholas Carnes, from Duke University’s Sanford school of public policy, contends working class legislators are more likely to support social safety net programs, government regulation, and government subsidized healthcare. Furthermore, workers do not often run and face incredible time and financial barriers needed to successfully campaign for public office, a luxury many working class people do not have. For now, wealth and economic privilege remains highly concentrated in Congress and does not necessarily reflect the wealth and economic opportunity of an average working American.

Representation in Federal Executive and Judicial Leadership: 

There is also a lack of diversity in senior leadership positions in the executive branch. While we have made progress, racial/ethnic minorities are often left out of more senior executive government positions. According to a report from the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization reports as of March 2021, people of color represent 47 percent of all full-time, entry-level employees but only 33 percent of senior-level positions. Within the Senior Executive Service (SES), the top executive government positions just below senior presidential appointments, only 23 percent of all career SES members are people of color. As of 2017, for senior executive service positions, only a third were held by women. The presidential cabinet has made modest gains under the Biden Administration. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, at Rutgers University, 44 Percent of the Biden Administration’s cabinet are women, the most of any president. Finally, in 2021, Dr. Rachel Levine became the first openly transgender federal official, serving as Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

There is also a lack of representation among the federal judiciary. According to the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization, reports as of 2019, more than 73 percent of sitting federal judges are men and 80 percent are white. Women, people of color (including African American, Asian, Hispanic, indigenous, and multi-racial) and LGBTQ federal sitting judges are all underrepresented on federal courts compared to their share of the US population. 

These are just a few of the broad sociodemographic characteristics that describe our government, many of which are interrelated and require further unpacking.

What does a representative democracy and government look like to you?

Noah Yee Westfall is of mixed Chinese descent currently living in Washington, DC and working in health policy. He is passionate about achieving health equity and enjoys liminal spaces. 

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