Both The New York Times and The Washington Post published stories about the wealth disparity between members of Congress and the public they serve. Basically, since 1984 the median net worth of a member of Congress grew more dramatically than the wealth of the general public. In 2009 the median net worth of a member of Congress adjusted for inflation was $725,000 compared to $280,000 in 1984. Between 2004 and 2010 when the growth in median net worth of the 10% richest Americans was essentially flat, it grew on average by 15% for members of Congress. The Washington Post also noted that the increased political polarization seems to track closely with the growing disparity of wealth. The New York Times noted that few members of Congress were willing to respond to an informal survey asking if they had personal friend or family members who had lost jobs or homes since 2008 (18 of 534 responded) and that only half of them could respond affirmatively; the other half only knew constituents.
While members of Congress are paid well, $174,000 annual base salary before additions for chairmanships and other perks, such as excellent medical coverage, which come with the office, today’s salary is actually less than the base salary in 1977 ($215,000) adjusted for inflation. Furthermore, the increased net wealth comes from investments.
Knowing this, is it any wonder why Congress can’t seem to get things right? Most of them do not face the same choices that 99% of this nation confronts every day. I was really happy the other day to find a standing rib roast on sale for $5.99 a pound, but I had to shop to find that price and look at the cut carefully to see if it was adequately marbled with the right amount of fat on its surface (for those who live near Pittsfield, I found it a Harry’s) before I would buy it. Our income along with our expenses, such as college tuition, doesn’t allow us to purchase this cut whenever we want regardless of price.
When the people who have the charge and responsibility for making decisions on behalf of 300 million people do not, collectively, live lives which reflect that of their constituents, it’s no wonder that their proposals on our behalf often miss the mark. We’ve got a tax system that over the last four decades has markedly favored the rich over the poor. We’ve created a public safety net that has achieved a paradoxical arrangement that is both miserly and paternalistic, neither of which really does much to help the poor or break the cycle of poverty.
How one approaches public policy begins with the lens one uses to view society. One’s biography and social context substantially defines that lens. A generation or two ago, people who came from modest means could run for Congress and had a reasonable chance to win. Today, the cost of campaigning has become so high that it has made entry for people of modest means almost impossible. Thus, when the overwhelming majority of the members of Congress can’t identify with a $5.99 per pound rib roast, we’re in trouble.
I can’t help putting this within the context of Christmas, though. I’m not thinking that all of this will magically disappear to be made right. Rather, I think about Christmas not as the birth of a baby, but as God’s incarnation in Jesus, who would live among those whose lives were not like the people in political, economic, or religious power. God came down to share our common lot and to suffer with us. I think of Jesus who said in Mark’s gospel, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Members of Congress should take these pages from scripture.