The Legislator’s Budget

The last thing you all want to read right now is an article about why the pay of legislators is not enough.

But hear me out.

Yes, our legislators make us angry. We feel that they don’t listen, that they act upon the whims of their donors, and that they don’t represent us.

And in terms of demographics, they clearly do not. Despite composing about half of the population, women only make up 19.4% of the United States Congress. Racial minorities make up 17% of Congress, compared to 38% of the national population. These disparities might not be that surprising, but what about socioeconomic diversity?

According to OpenSecrets.org, the median net worth of a member of Congress was $1,029,505 in 2013. The least wealthy member of Congress reported a monetary worth of $32,500. We already know that Congress is weak on race and gender diversity, but income representation may be the most egregious form of inequity.

Once elected to Congress, our public servants receive a $174,000 annual salary.

Considering the inefficacy of our national Congress, you might find that absolutely absurd. Don’t we all wish we could get paid that much for “doing nothing.”

What about at the state level though? Nationwide, state legislatures passed approximately 24,000 bills in 2014, compared to 296 laws in the federal legislature. What are those productive state legislators getting paid?

Let’s look at my home state, North Carolina. Now an infamous Southern State for passing HB 2, a bill that openly discriminates against the LGBTQ community, North Carolina’s legislature has been quite busy passing legislation as of late. And, what is their reward for doing so?

$13,951 per year.

Yes, you read that right. State legislators are paid just under $14,000 for approximately 60–90 day sessions with emergency sessions held at a moment’s notice.

You may not feel much empathy for these state legislators, especially when you do not agree with their policy positions. And many of them don’t need this money, you may argue. Yet, what if we want a more economically diverse legislature? What if you are running to represent the poor, disadvantaged communities of the South? What if this was your only form of income as a newly elected official? How would you live off this budget alone, especially if you could not maintain a full-time job year-round due to the 2–3 month commitment of the legislature?

Let’s take a look at how this would pan out for a newly elected North Carolina legislator from Durham.

Source: Economic Policy Institute

There’s a problem here. In order to live in the capital or nearby, which is one of the more expensive regions of the state, a single adult needs to make $29,041 to make ends meet. That’s more than twice the annual pay of a legislator. If you are a single parent with no other form of income, it would be impossible to sustain yourself on that budget.

There’s been an increase in media attention over the lack of representation of lower socio-economic voices in our legislative bodies across the United States, particularly after the publication of Duke professor Nicholas Carnes’ White Collar Government. Yet, for someone from a lower socio economic class, it is nearly impossible to subsist in these positions at the state level, if one can even take the time to raise the money and funds to get there.

So yes, we can be mad at how much legislators get paid for doing nothing or doing what we believe is wrong. But what would happen to our legislation if the poor, or even the lower middle class, were directly represented in lawmaking?

For now, that remains a dream, but perhaps someday we can find a way to make it possible for our governing bodies to represent all aspects of our diverse nation, including class.