The Distorted View from Capitol Hill
||New York Times (NY)
||Sunday, January 1, 2012
||THOMAS B. EDSALL
Last week, both The Washington Post and The Times published illuminating stories on the growing affluence of members of Congress. Both stories — Peter Whoriskey’s in the Post and Eric Lichtblau’s in the Times — demonstrate how the economic fortunes of those elected to Congress have diverged radically from those of the men and women they represent.
For members of Congress, Lichtblau wrote, median net worth “is $913,000 and climbing” while for families in the country at large, it’s “$100,000 and has dropped significantly since 2004.”
The articles demonstrate one of the crucial differences that separate federal elected officials from the rest of America. Members of the House and Senate are treated with inflated deference throughout their working days on Capitol Hill. They have their own police force, a research service, and a cast of thousands of subordinates and special services including doorkeepers, committee aides, private restaurants, free mailing privileges, television studios, airport parking without charge and more.
Each member of the House can hire a personal staff of 18 full-time and four part-time workers, all of whom devote their entire working lives to their bosses. Each representative controls his or her own annual budget, ranging from $1.4 million to $1.7 million depending on the distance from Washington that the member needs to travel.
Senators’ personal staffs range from 26 to 60 depending on the size of their state. Each senator controls an office budget that runs from $2,960,726 for those representing Delaware to $4,685,279 for each of the two senators from California.
There are, all together, a total of 6,804 House employees and an estimated 7,000 Senate staffers, all of whom are there to pay assiduous attention to the wishes of members. Unlike the average worker who now faces hard times if laid off, a member who loses re-election (or voluntarily retires) is virtually certain to have the option of a job paying in the $1 million-plus range in Washington’s influence-peddling industry.
In addition to the many benefits flowing to Congress, there is another factor distorting members’ view of the country at large that gets very little attention: Washington itself.
Representatives and senators work, and in many cases live, in a city that does not reflect the makeup of the country. Instead, the city magnifies and exaggerates racial polarization.
The poor in the District of Columbia are overwhelmingly black. The city’s white population has a 6 percent poverty rate, lower than the white rate in every state, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The national average is 13 percent, and the closest competitors are Connecticut and New Jersey, each of which has an 8 percent white poverty rate. The Census Bureau defines poverty for a family of four as an income of $22,314 or less.
While the scope of poverty in Washington is well documented, another recent story in the Washington Post provided some insight into just how insulated the world of the city’s well-to-do has become. Reporter J. Freedom du Lac spent the day at a wine store in the city’s prosperous, virtually all-white Cleveland Park neighborhood, not long before New Year’s Eve. The store’s clientele includes Capitol Hill staffers, political operatives, political appointees, even the odd Supreme Court justice.
Hanging out in the store, du Lac writes, opened up “a window not only into the way the city celebrates, but also into its high-flying wealth. Washington boasts some of the country’s richest neighborhoods and most affluent households, many of which thrived during the economic downturn.” The store’s warehouse manager was amazed when “this guy picked up like six cases, for $3,600. That’s a mortgage right there.” Another employee told du Lac, “There’s big tickets, all day, every day — people spending $1,100 on one bottle. That was unheard of to me, unbelievable. But it’s common. This place attracts people with money.”
Black residents of Washington have a poverty rate of 27 percent, very close to the national average of 27.4 percent. Since the population of the city is 50.7 percent black, this translates to an estimated 83,590 blacks in poverty in the city compared to 12,560 whites in poverty in the area, a black to white ratio of 6.7 to 1. In essence, for every poor white in the city there are nearly seven African-Americans living beneath the poverty line.
In the entire United States, where blacks make up 12.6 percent of the population, the ratio is reversed. There were 19.5 million non-Hispanic whites under the poverty line and 10.9 million blacks, a black to white ratio of 1 to 1.8. In other words, in the entire country, for every poor black there are nearly two whites living under the poverty line. Nationally, according to the most recent census data, the 2010 poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites was 9.9 percent and for blacks 27.4 percent,
Members of Congress are attuned to the economic conditions in their home districts and states, but living and working in Washington for much, if not most, of their time encourages the view that poverty is a black problem.
The overwhelming importance of race in defining poverty in Washington is also true of unemployment and crime.
The 2010 inmate population in the District of Columbia, according to the Department of Corrections, was 88 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 2 percent white. In contrast, the national state and federal prison population in 2010 was 37.7 percent black, 32.0 percent white and 22.2 percent Hispanic
In the case of unemployment in Washington, joblessness is heavily concentrated among blacks. A local think tank, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, found that from 2007 to September, 2011, the unemployment rate for blacks in the city doubled, going from 10 percent to 20.6 percent.
Hispanic unemployment declined from 9.6 percent in 2007 to 7.9 percent in September 2011. Joblessness among whites increased, but from a minuscule starting point of 1.9 percent in 2007 to 3.7 percent in September.
The figures for the nation as a whole in September 2011 were also different: black unemployment nationally was 16 percent, white unemployment was at 8 percent, and Hispanic joblessness was at 11.3 percent.
All these factors contribute to the effective racialization of inequality in the nation’s capital. It does so at a time when rising inequality is an issue Democrats and liberal advocacy groups are trying to emphasize during the upcoming election campaign.
Nationally, as the world now knows, rising inequality has been driven by the huge income gains among the top 1 percent, and, even more so, for the top 0.1 percent.
For the average wage earner, income has declined in recent years. Median income for all households, adjusted for inflation, fell 6.4 percent from 2007 ($52,823) to 2010 ($49,445), according to the census. For white households, the drop, 5.4 percent, $57,752 to $54,620, has been less severe than the 10.1 percent decline for black households, $35,665 to $32,068 and the 7.2 percent decline for Hispanic households, $40,673 to $37,759.
In terms of wealth and assets, the recent deterioration nationally, driven by the economic collapse, has been most severe among blacks and Hispanics, although whites have certainly not been exempt.
From 2005 to 2009, the median net worth of black households fell by a brutal 53 percent, from an already low figure of $12,124 to $5,677, according to the Pew Research Center. Median Hispanic household net worth fell even more, 66 percent, from $18,359 to $6,325. White households experienced a more modest but still painful 16 percent drop, from $134,992 to $113,149.
In Washington, inequality is driven almost entirely by the differences between the wages paid to whites and blacks. In 2010, whites earned $3.08 for every $1 earned by blacks. The black-white income difference is higher in the city than it is in any of the 11 surrounding counties in Virginia and Maryland. Overall, in the entire region, whites earn an average of $1.80 for every dollar earned by blacks.
The result is that the capital of the United States has a higher level of inequality than any state in the nation. Among the nation’s cities, it has the third-highest level of inequality, behind Atlanta and New Orleans, according to three different measures used by the census.
The unrepresentative character of the city serves to reinforce conservative stereotypes: That unemployment and poverty are essentially black problems, that violent crime is committed mainly by African-Americans, and that any spending to relieve these problems or any other domestic trouble will amount to a transfer of income from whites to blacks.
To top off the corrupting and warping effects of the forces pressing on House members and senators in Washington, their sense of self-importance is magnified by the power of Congress over the local government.
Congress, in one of the most undemocratic processes in the nation, can veto legislation passed by the City Council and signed into law by the mayor; all city judges must be approved by Congress; and Congress can impose laws on the city. And of course Washington residents do not have voting representation in either the House or the Senate.
This is not just a theoretical issue. At various times since 1988, for example, Congress has enacted temporary bans against the use of locally raised taxes or fees to finance abortions in the city, and most recently, on May 4, the House voted 251-175, with all 235 Republicans present voting yes, to make the ban permanent.
Congress has constitutional authority to exercise these powers, but it would be far less likely to do so if the city’s majority population was white rather than black. If power corrupts, in America race often leads to the corrupt exercise of power and to the denial of political autonomy.
The distortion of economic and racial reality for members of Congress living and working in Washington contributes to their tendency to view the consequences of budget cuts and austerity measures as affecting primarily individuals and families with whom they believe they have little in common. They often see or choose to see these people as separate and apart from both themselves and from the mainstream of the United States.