Even in States Where Legislators Earn More, Economic Diversity in the State House Remains Elusive

Experts say working class people remain scant in state legislatures because campaigning has gotten more expensive, and serving in positions with term limits can be a gamble.

The California State Capitol
California has a full-time legislature but no working class law makers.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

This article is part of Unequal Representation, a project by the Observer and Quartz. Click here to see other articles in the package.

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In 1966, more than two-thirds of California residents voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to make the state legislature full-time, and give legislators a pay raise.

Seven years before the amendment passed, researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) offered an overview of the “staggering work load” assigned to the state’s legislators in a paper titled “The California Legislator and the Problem of Compensation.” At the time, California’s population was growing rapidly, as was the state’s budget, and lawmakers were being asked to take on more work. Around 30 percent of legislators devoted all their time to legislative duties during a general session year, the researchers found, even though the job was intended to be part-time.

As a result, the types of citizens able to serve in this increasingly demanding legislative role were limited, USC researchers Alexander Cloner and Richard Gable argued. “Few people can afford to spend as little as 50 percent of their time on private pursuits during a year, with little or no time at all available during any of the sessions,” the study read. Full-time workers who depended on a salary, they continued, couldn’t serve as legislators unless they had the financial support to do so. At the time, the authors of the study noted, more than a third of California legislators were attorneys, 20 percent worked in business or finance, while 15 percent worked in agriculture.

More than 60 years after the study was published, legislators in California work year-round and earn a base annual salary of $119,702, higher than any other other state legislature in the U.S. While this relatively generous compensation should, in theory, encourage candidates from all walks of life to apply for the job, the demographic makeup of the California legislature still isn’t reflective of the state’s population.

There are no Californians from working class backgrounds currently serving in the state legislature, according to data compiled by Nicholas Carnes and Eric Hansen, political scientists at Duke and Loyola Chicago, respectively. Their definition of the working class includes labor, service and clerical jobs, and excludes managers and employers. They compiled the research using classifications from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As was the case in 1959, the law remains one of the most popular professions for California legislators—nearly a quarter are trained as lawyers, even though a far higher share of Californians work in industries such as administrative support, sales, and transportation than in the legal profession. California’s legislators also trend older, whiter, and wealthier than most of the state, according to an analysis by the non-profit news organization CalMatters.

This issue isn’t unique to California. In Michigan, where legislators work full-time and earn more money than their counterparts in most other states, there is just one working class legislator. Texas didn’t have any as of this October. Carnes co-published research in 2016 which showed states that paid their lawmakers more had about as many blue-collar legislators as other states; one dataset suggested they even had fewer. “At best, paying more isn’t associated with any change in economic diversity,” the study concluded. “At worst, it’s associated with decreases in working-class representation.”

Experts who focus on diversity and professionalization within state legislatures said this trend persists because campaigning has gotten more expensive, and serving in positions with term limits can be a gamble for working class Americans concerned with keeping food on the table. While paying legislators higher salaries hasn’t yet closed the demographic gap between state lawmakers and their citizens, advocates working to elect more diverse lawmakers believe investing in additional measures—such as childcare and public financing—could help.

How state lawmaking became a full-time job

The push to make more state legislatures full-time occurred during the middle of the 20th century, according to Peverill Squire, an American politics professor at the University of Missouri who studies legislative institutions and elections. Historically many state legislators came from an agricultural background, and the legislative calendar was organized around the growing season. But this structure didn’t make as much sense once farm employment declined, he said, and the typical American began working 40 hours a week.

Ballot measures like California’s typically drew support from good government groups and the editorial boards of major newspapers, Squire said. The idea was that legislatures “needed to be able to meet for longer sessions in order to meet the demands for legislation in what had become a more demanding environment.” If legislators started working full-time, they’d need to be paid more as well.

The Citizens Conference on State Legislatures, a non-profit, published The Sometime Governments in 1971, which included a series of recommendations to make legislatures “functional, accountable, informed, independent and representative.” Among the recommendations was boosting legislator pay to no less than $10,000 a year (on par with the median income for U.S. families at the time) and strengthening legislative department staff, while paying them “at suitable salary levels for professional qualification.” The Citizens Conference was led by Larry Margolis, former chief of staff to Jesse Unruh, the California Assembly speaker who had advocated to make California’s legislature full-time. The Sometime Governments held up California as an example of what other legislatures should strive for.

In the years that followed, more states moved in the direction of California, making legislation a full-time job. The New York Times documented this shift across the country, and in 1989 made note of “a new breed of lawmaker,” that is, “one who has had no career other than politics.” Today 10 states are considered full-time by the National Conference of State Legislatures, with lawmakers in California, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania earning the highest salaries.

Though giving lawmakers salary bumps can be politically unpopular, it’s consistently seen as a way to encourage a more diverse slate of candidates to run for legislature. Shortly after California legislators received a 37 percent pay raise in 1994, Claude Brinegar, a former transportation secretary under President Richard Nixon and then-chairman of California’s salary commission, explained why he believed paying legislators more was necessary: “With term limits, we feel it is urgent that we attract candidates to run for the Legislature who represent a balanced mix—not just people who are retired or want to be here for the power, but people who are willing to take mid-career interruptions to serve the state.” Just this year, Oregon legislators introduced a bill that would raise their annual pay from $33,000 to $58,500. While it received support from a state Senate committee in February, the bill didn’t pass before legislators adjourned in March. Courtney Helstein, a political director for Family Forward Oregon who testified in favor of the bill, told Oregon Public Broadcasting she viewed the pay raise as a way to make serving in the legislature “more of a practical option for folks,” noting that the state’s lawmakers have historically been “whiter, wealthier, and older” than the general population.

Why full-time legislatures aren’t reflective of their populations

Even in legislatures where lawmakers earn relatively high salaries, working class representation remains low. That’s in part because as legislating became a full-time job, the competition to win office increased, as did the cost of campaigning, said Squire.

The fundraising bar for legislative candidates has risen over the last decade as more money has flowed into state politics. Contributions to state legislative candidates running for lower chamber seats totaled $882 million in 2020, an all-time high since campaign finance site OpenSecrets started tracking data in 2000. Campaign contributions to state senate candidates also reached new highs in recent years, peaking at $510 million in 2018. Candidates for the California State Assembly have raised more than $1 billion collectively since 2000, according to OpenSecrets, more than counterparts in any other state. A 2014 analysis by campaign finance research organization MapLight estimated candidates for California’s legislature had to raise more than $1,000 a day to win their seat that year.

Not only do candidates have to deal with the rising costs of campaigning, they also have to consider the possibility they’ll lose their race, or find themselves without a job a few years down the road.

“There’s a level of insecurity in terms of legislative service,” said Squire. He noted both the California and Michigan state legislatures have term limits—legislators in both states’ lower chambers serve just two years before they have to seek re-election, and there’s a cap on the total number of terms they can serve in the legislature. California also doesn’t offer a pension for legislative service, so these lawmakers could miss out on years of saving for retirement.

“If you’re working class, you have to calculate, can you really afford—in terms of your lifetime earnings—to go into the legislature, knowing that you’re giving up your current occupation, for the uncertainty of being able to serve for two, four, maybe six years?” Squire said.

Even lawmakers serving in full-time legislatures have spoken about the financial strain of campaigning, said Ghida Dagher, the president of New American Leaders (NAL), an organization that works to help immigrants, refugees, and their allies run for elected office. In a recent NAL report looking at pay across state legislatures, Stephanie Chang, a Michigan state senator, said she had to raise more than $100,000 for her first race, which she decided to enter while in graduate school. “If I had been single at the time, I don’t think it would have been financially possible to run for office,” Chang, who earned a master’s degree in social work, told the NAL. “I had to rely on the second source of income from my spouse.”

Seeking solutions through public financing, childcare

Dagher said NAL continues to advocate for making legislatures full-time. “Our needs are around the clock and we should have legislatures that are reflecting that.”

But her organization is advocating for additional policy changes that she said could prompt more candidates from working-class backgrounds to run. One is addressing the need for childcare, an issue Alaska tackled by putting a daycare center next to the state capital in 2009. This appears to at least have had a potential impact on gender representation in the state legislature, as the share of women serving rose by 10 percentage points between 2015 and 2020.

Another way to remove potential barriers to office is to consider public financing programs for candidates interested in running for state legislature, Dagher said. Several states, including Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, give campaign funding to candidates if they collect a certain number of small-dollar donations, typically under $5. In Arizona, candidates who run for state legislature can receive up to $25,940 from the state for the general election if they collect 200 small-dollar donations.

Athena Salman, who serves in Arizona’s house of representatives, said running a so-called clean election campaign was helpful when entered her first race at age 26, without a significant network or resources to write big campaign checks. “It was an avenue to open up funding to run for office without having to get that buy-in from a political establishment,” said Salman, who was a first-generation college student.

“Not everyone comes from communities with the same level of resources,” she said. “Without the public funding component for people to run for office, you really are limiting your pool of potential candidates.” Still, she recognized that there are limits to what “clean” candidates can raise from the state, making it hard to compete against wealthy individuals who are able to raise unlimited funds. And in states like Arizona, which only pays its legislators $24,000 a year, salary remains a major barrier to attracting candidates from more diverse backgrounds.

Dagher stressed that any major changes to the demographics of state legislatures will take time. “All of this work takes long-term investment, and it’s not just something we should do in election years.”

Even in States Where Legislators Earn More, Economic Diversity in the State House Remains Elusive