Analyzing Representation in the United States Congress
Year after year, we continue to see a severe lack of diversity in Congress. Without proper representation in our country’s legislature, the voices of all citizens are not heard in important decision-making. We, the Gerrymandering and Representation team at Common Cause Illinois, are launching an educational campaign to raise awareness about the lack of representation in Congress, its drastic impacts, and possible solutions.
To kick-off this process, we will share analysis of statistical data that reflects the inadequate representation of various historically underrepresented communities and identities in the federal legislature.
The representation of Black Americans in Congress has slowly increased in recent times. However, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Black Americans now hold 57 seats within the House of Representatives, putting them at 13% of the makeup of the House despite making up 14% of the U.S. population. Since the establishment of Congress, Black Americans have only held 11 seats in total within the Senate, which includes the 3 seats that are currently being held. Four in ten Black American adults state that increasing political representation will help promote racial equality through policy. In order to support the presence of Black Americans in Congress, all citizens must strive to end the institutional roadblocks in our election process that prevent this representation.
Women account for only 27% of seats in Congress across both chambers despite the fact that they make up 51% of the U.S. population. Progress, however, has been made. The 117th Congress is one of the most representative bodies in history, especially for women, who make up 144 seats. This reflects an increase from the 96 seats that they held in the 112th Congress. Despite this change, women in the U.S. are still not adequately represented within our Congress, and issues that primarily affect women are made by a majority-male Congress. Since the creation of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has been the first–and only–female in this position. Increasing political representation for women in our Congress will help diversify the voices within our Congress and help our Congress better reflect our country as a whole.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Although Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority population in the U.S., they are also the most politically underrepresented group, according to the Center for Reflective Democracy. Only three percent of Congress is Asian American, although double that percentage makes up the U.S. population as a whole. Research has shown that across all levels of government in the country, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are even more severely underrepresented, serving in under one percent of all elected offices. As Asian Americans face an increase in hate crimes and a disproportionate economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to other long-standing issues specific to the AAPI community, representation is more important than ever.
People with Disabilities
People with disabilities make up nearly one fourth of the U.S. population, yet only fourteen congressional members identify as having a disability, according to the National Council on Independent Living. This underrepresentation is in part due to the added difficulty of campaigning with a disability — only 11 disability-identifying candidates ran for a congressional seat in 2018 — and discrimination by voters. The definition of “disability” is wide, and it includes Rep. Steve Cohen’s (TN-9) use of a wheelchair and Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (HI) status as cancer survivor. The disabled population is unique in that anyone may become a part of it at any point in their lives. Despite the lack of disability representation in government, lawmakers are responsible for legislation that determines the rights and healthcare access for people with disabilities. Even legislation not directly focused on disability has a specific impact on the disabled community, making representation necessary for equitable policies.
Due to decades of historic discrimination, Native Americans have long had very little representation in Congress. Currently, five Native Americans — a record number — serve in the House of Representatives (the Senate has not had a Native American member since 2005), meaning .9% of Congress members are Native American. Yet, according to the 2010 census, 1.7% of the total population identifies as Native American. While the difference in two small percentages may seem insignificant, with all the challenges Native American communities are facing — from a lack of voting access to limited internet access or health care — proper representation for Native Americans would have a huge impact on people’s everyday lives.
Currently, LGBTQ+ Americans are underrepresented across all levels of government, including in Congress. In 2020, a record number of LGBTQ+ Americans — 11 candidates — were elected to Congress. However, LGBTQ+ Americans still only make up 2% of Congress, despite data from a new Gallup poll that estimates that 5.6% of Americans identify as LGBTQ. This difference in statistics may seem insignificant, but from failure to pass the Equality Act to the continually higher rates of mental health disorders among LGBTQ+ people, LGBTQ+ Americans receiving only 1/3 of the representation they should logically have has no doubt changed Congress’s priorities, to the detriment of LGBGQ+ Americans lives.
In the U.S, there are an estimated 58.9 million Latinos, constituting 18.1% of the population. Yet, despite the fact that Latinos constitute a large share of the population, only 6,700 elected officials are Latino, amounting to a representation rate of 1.2%. In state legislatures, only 4% of legislators are Latino. Largely, one reason behind this disconnect in representation is gerrymandering, through which racially segregated districts suppress the voices of minorities. Additionally, because Latino candidates tend to raise less money and come from less wealthy communities on average, it is significantly harder to overcome fundraising barriers for campaigning. This lack of representation makes it significantly more difficult to address inequalities and injustices, such as health care, educational, economic, and housing gaps, that can affect Latinos.
Despite nearly 34 million Americans living below the poverty line, low and middle income Americans severely lack representation in Congress. In 2015, the top 1% wealthiest Americans represented 40% of Congress, whereas the bottom 40% wealthiest Americans were represented by only 0.5% of Congress. 78% of Congress is composed of wealthy people in the top 10%. When low and middle income citizens aren’t represented in Congress, they are given less of a platform to advocate for policies that benefit all Americans, not just the wealthy. These policies, such as benefits from social welfare programs, regulation of the private sector, and general efforts to reduce economic inequality, get pushed to the wayside.
As a result of this severe lack of representation, millions of voters are not reflected in government policy-making. Consequently, the will of millions of voters is undemocratically omitted despite the fact that every action Congress takes will impact their lives. In our blog post next week, we will further explore some of the specific public policy implications of a lack of representation.