Congress: Lend your ears, and perhaps some of your wealth

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has pitted the 99% against the 1% and as recent reports reveal that 1 in 2 Americans are now considered to be poor, income inequality is a real concern for our country. As the gap continues to widen between the wealthy and the poor, let’s not forget an arena where that discrepancy is especially exposed: the gap between members of congress and their constituents.

Our representatives have gotten richer during the economic downturn that has hurt so many regular Americans – the very people that Congress is sent to Washington to represent. According to Eric Lichtblau at the New York Times, the median net worth of a member of Congress is $913,000. Over half of the members of Congress are millionaires. The Washington Post reports that between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, from $280,000 to $725,000. During the same period of time, the average American family’s wealth has declined slightly from $20,600 to $20,500.

Democrats and Republicans alike are guilty, as the base salary (not including extensive benefits) for Congress is $174,000. Lichtbau calls attention across party lines specifically to both Darrell Issa (R-CA) who has a net worth of between $195 million and $700 million, and former presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA), who drew criticism last year after docking his $7 million, 76-foot yacht in Rhode Island, rather than Massachusetts, to avoid sales and use tax on his boat.

It’s no secret that you need money to run for office to cover the costs of campaigning and advertising. Last year, on average, a successful Senate campaign cost almost $10 million, with a winning House campaign costing about $1.4 million. These figures are astronomical (especially in the eyes of, for example, families below the poverty line trying to scrape by on about $20,000 a year) and discourage if not essentially disqualify “ordinary” Americans from running for office.

As a result, our lawmakers—who are challenged with trying to balance the budget and restore the economy—rarely have any personal experience with what it is like to suffer economically. The New York Times conducted a survey of the 534 Congress members to ask if they personally knew people affected by the poor economy. Only 18 responded. From this paltry sample, a third said they did not personally know anyone who had been laid off or lost a business since the 2008 economic bust.

The point of representative democracy is that you elect an official to symbolize your voice in government decisions. Though many lawmakers do have the interests of their constituents at heart, many poor and middle class Americans are negatively impacted by the policies our Congress puts forth. Without even knowing people who are poor, is is possible for so many lawmakers to truly represent their best interests?

Our Catholic tradition emphasizes our right to participate in a society that serves human dignity. It calls us to put the needs of the poor first in a society of growing division between rich and poor. It calls us to seek the common good.

It also prods us to ask: Is working toward the common good really achievable when so many lawmakers are so uncommonly wealthy?