The more diverse a governing body, the greater the range of values, perspectives and beliefs that is brought to bear on complex decisions, as a recent article in Forbes explained. Diversity in our legislative bodies matters. Although diversity can make the decision-making process more challenging, it can also “unbias” decision-making. This, in turn, promote ideas that, by their nature, are more representative of the common good.
The 116th U.S. Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse congress ever, but how representative of their constituencies are the congresspersons? How representative of Hawaiʻi is our own 2019 Hawai‘i State Legislature? When it comes to gender and age, both governing bodies are older and more male than their constituencies. In terms of race and ethnicity, the U.S. Congress is also whiter (78 percent) than the U.S. population (61 percent). In Hawai‘i, people of color outnumber whites in the state legislature in an even greater percentage than they do in the state population.
Representation Manifested in Policy
Looking just at age and gender in the U.S. Congress, there is evidence that imbalances in these categories lead to real differences in legislating and constituency service and advocacy. Older members of Congress are more likely to introduce legislation on senior issues than younger members of Congress, independent of whether their constituents tend to be younger or older. Women are more likely than men to initiate a gender-related request for information or other intervention with a federal agency.
The latest research shows that the government programs that provide the “biggest bang for the buck” and are most likely to pay for themselves are programs aimed at low-income children and young people through the age of 20. Would younger legislators pay more attention to issues such as college affordability or subsidies for first-time home buyers? It is an open question, but one worth considering.
It is also important to note the significant difference in wealth between the U.S. Congress and the country’s population. How do differences in the life experiences of wealthy and non-wealthy people affect legislative priorities? This is especially relevant when it comes to tax policy. Or investments in opportunity-building programs and financial supports such as public education and college assistance, housing, public transportation, and programs like SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).