Separation Anxiety: Congress Can’t Hear You (Unless You’re Wealthy)

Most Americans have a higher opinion of cockroaches than Congress.

(I’m not making that up.)


Maybe it’s because they aren’t listening to a majority of Americans. That kind of situation can create a lot of anxiety in a democratic system.

A study in Political Research Quarterly found that, overall, members of the U.S. Senate represent their wealthiest constituents, and those in the lower classes are neglected.

“The fact that lower income groups seem to be ignored by elected officials, although not a new finding, remains a troubling observation in American politics,” Thomas J. Hayes of Trinity University wrote in his study.

“My analysis, which examines Senator behavior on a large number of votes, shows evidence of responsiveness to only the wealthy, a distinct problem for any democracy,” Hayes continues. “In some ways, this suggests oligarchic tendencies in the American system, a finding echoed in other research.”

Read more about his study here.

Although Sister Simone Campbell didn’t talk specifically about this (and previous research in this vein) during her lecture, “Health Care and the Poor,” at Mount Marty College Thursday, she did talk about the problems it creates.

Let’s go back to what she said:

At the beginning of her lecture, Campbell called on volunteers to create a human bar graph showing the audience how far the incomes of the top 5 percent of earners outstripped all others between 1979 and 2009. Those on the bottom of the income ladder actually saw their incomes decline.

“For me, it helps explain why it’s difficult for folks who are (in the top 5 percent of the income ladder) to understand the struggle (of those at the bottom),” Campbell said. “Because what happens is, not only are they economically removed, but at (the top of the income ladder) they can afford gated communities, private police, private schools, private medical care.

“The distance that is created leads to a lack of comprehension, lack of understanding, lack of empathy. It’s really worrisome that we’re getting so separated from each other. It’s an economic challenge that we’re facing.”

Members of Congress are in those top income levels and don’t understand what is going on at the bottom, Campbell said.

“That’s why democracy is so important, and that we each use our own voice to speak our truth and be witnesses to each other,” she stated.

It’s tempting to think of income and wealth distribution (two different things, let’s remember) as merely economic issues.

However, they are much more than that.

The accumulation of large amounts of money into relatively few hands rips at the fabric of society — of democracy. It makes it so that people can’t relate to one another.

Researchers have been investigating many aspects of this reality.

Here is but one study where Berkeley scientists found that the affluent are more isolated and less generous than the poor.

In other experiments, the researchers found evidence that lower-class participants’ greater tendency to perform kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—behavior could be explained by their greater concern for egalitarian values and the well-being of other people, and their stronger feelings of compassion for others.

However, the researchers also found that when they induced feelings of compassion in upper class participants, those people showed just as much pro-social behavior as lower-class participants. This suggests to the researchers that the rich aren’t as generous as the poor because they don’t typically feel as much compassion for others.

Piff and his colleagues argue that the poor may feel more compassion because they are more connected to those around them, psychologically and socially. They are more dependent on other people to get by, for instance, and previous research has found that, perhaps as a result of that dependency, they display more empathy and are more attuned to other people’s body language than the rich. On the flip side, as people attain higher status, their ability to take others’ perspectives is diminished.

We’ve seen how Congress is content to let sequestration cut funding to Head Start, Meals on Wheels and other low-income assistance programs. However, when it began to affect lines at the airport and therefore Congress members and their business class friends, a solution was quickly found.

If Americans in the middle and lower classes (as well as the empathetic members of the upper classes) are content to watch the economic gulf widen, we can expect this societal breakdown to continue.

What can we do about it?

I think the first solution is to follow Campbell’s advice. Somehow, the concerns of the lower classes must be communicated to the rich. Wealth tends to make people retreat into materialism, research shows. However, if you expose them to other viewpoints and realities, they are just as capable of empathy as anyone else. We mustn’t allow them to retreat into their castles, so to speak.

The second track we must follow is pursuing policies that ensure that money is better distributed throughout society. Minimum wage laws, CEO pay caps and progressive taxation are some examples of policies that assist such an effort.

We are encouraged to believe the economy is something divine and best left to its own devices. It’s a mythos reinforced by those who benefit from the current structure and from those who have given up on government. But it’s not an invisible hand that moves money from one place to another, it’s the hands — and policies created by — people that determine its flow. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to make sure the economy is structured in a way that best serves all and not just the few. An economic system must also be a just system. Currently, it is not, and it’s hurting everyone, from the rich to the poor, in our nation and beyond.

2 thoughts on “Separation Anxiety: Congress Can’t Hear You (Unless You’re Wealthy)

  1. She nailed it. I learned more about the ignorance of the very rich from Romney’s campaign than any other source. I found several of his comments simply astounding. As I became aware that he didn’t see that, it all got a little frightening. The 1% really has no clue? They are truly that ignorant? They truly believe they are the gold standard?

    OMG. Sister Simone, whom I greatly admire, is remarkably brave and smart. Thanks for this blog post, Nathan.

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