Part Two: Underrepresentation in Congress: What Are The Consequences?
When Congress fails to accurately represent the American population, many groups are excluded from consequential lawmaking. As a result, policies that address long-standing structural inequities may not be discussed, let alone passed, shaping people’s daily lives. Recognizing the specific issues minority communities face is crucial to understanding the larger significance of representation.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are from over fifty countries, with a wide range of cultures, languages, and experiences. It is important to recognize that many issues impact specific Asian American nationalities in different, nuanced ways.
Economy: While Asian Americans have the highest median income of any group in the United States, they also have the highest “within-group” income inequality. The top earners make nearly 11 times more than the lowest earners. The majority of subgroups, including the Chinese, Burmese, and Pakistani, have higher poverty rates than white Americans.
Employment: Asian Americans disproportionately own businesses in food services, retail, and education, sectors that were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to disrupted income, Asian Americans experienced the highest increase in unemployment, 450% from February to June 2020, a higher rate of increase than any other racial group.
Voting: Due to cultural and language barriers — English is not the primary language of more than half of Southeast Asian Americans — Asian Americans may have difficulty navigating the voting process. Asian Americans are more likely than the general population to vote by mail, though a study on California voting found that Asian absentee ballots were more likely to be rejected for signature discrepancies. As voting laws come under attack in states across the country, new restrictions to absentee voting will disproportionately suppress Asian Americans, many of whom are unable to vote in person due to their jobs.
Discrimination and Hate Crimes: Anti-Asian racism surged as politicians incited fear and hatred toward Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. In California, there was a 107% increase in hate crimes toward Asian Americans, and increases in such incidents were seen across the country. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 30% of Asian Americans “said they’d been subjected to racial slurs or jokes” since the coronavirus outbreak. Congress recently passed the bipartisan COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which will expedite investigations and help publicize reported crimes, but it will not eliminate anti-Asian racism.
People with Disabilities
Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, at last protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities under federal law. While the ADA has been crucial to including people with disabilities in many aspects of society, there are still a number of issues that impact the disability community and warrant policy solutions.
Unemployment: Within the 16-64 age bracket, people with disabilities are 40% less likely to be employed than the rest of the population. This disparity is caused by a lack of workplace accommodations, hiring discrimination, and inaccessibility in education. People with disabilities who are Black, Hispanic, or Asian are less likely to be employed than those who are white.
Affordable housing and services: Over 75% of residents who receive federal rental assistance are disabled — and by default, Medicaid funds institutional services, creating segregated groups of those who need support, rather than providing home and community-based options that allow people with disabilities to remain integrated in society.
Criminal justice: In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nearly 40% of all state and federal prisoners have a disability. Most incarceration systems are not equipped to support people with disabilities, especially prisoners with mental illnesses, who are often punished for behaviors that manifest because of the lack of mental health treatment.
Due to a lack of Native American representation in Congress, issues affecting Native Americans have long been ignored. As a result, Native American communities continue to struggle with issues that non-Native American communities don’t. Some of these issues include:
Restrictive Voting Laws: A report by the Brennan Center states that restrictive voting laws often disproportionately impact Native Americans as “[s]tates with voter ID laws often do not accept tribal IDs as a valid form of identification” and limiting the number of polling places forces some Native Americans to drive 150 miles to vote.
Lack of Healthcare Access: as a result of treaty obligations, the Indian Health Service (IHS), a government agency provides healthcare for 2.2 million Native Americans. However, the IHS is chronically underfunded. In fact, for the care provided by the Indian Health Service to match the level of care federal prisoners receive, the agency’s funding would have to double. As a result, Native American “continue to die at higher rates than other Americans in many categories of preventable illness, including chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes, and chronic lower respiratory diseases”.
Internet Access: Native American communities continue to struggle with power shortages, a lack of electricity, and less access to broadband. In fact, during the pandemic, some Native American Youth had to drive to gas stations to complete their homework, as only there could they access wifi or get cell reception.
While these are complex issues, electing more Native Americans to Congress would certainly help combat them. In fact, Deb Halaand, a Laguna Pueblo member, from New Mexico, is quoted as saying, “I can speak from the heart about the fact that Indian Country doesn’t have electricity, running water or broadband internet services in some areas because I’ve lived that… Those are the things that representation brings.” In order for Congress to start to address the issues facing Native Americans, they have to know those issues exist, and electing Native American members to Congress is one way to make sure of that.
Markwayne Mullin, a Cherokee member of Congress from Oklahoma, echoes this point by saying, “[w]e all make decisions based on two things: our life experiences and the way we were raised… With more Native Americans in Congress, we can make a bigger impact and better educate our colleagues about Native issues”. Thus, electing more Native Americans to Congress could have a direct impact on Native Americans lives through educating non-Native American members of Congress on issues that don’t need to be partisan. This would likely lead to a better quality of life, especially as it relates to health care, internet access, and even voting, for many Native Americans.
This is Part Two of a three-part series. Check back for the third piece of this three-part series.