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WORKED OUT

Texans are bearing the cost of keeping the working class out of the statehouse

The inside of the Texas House of Representative
Reuters/Mike Stone
Who gets to decide about whom?
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published

In March, members of the Texas House of Representatives presented a proposal to expand Medicaid benefits. The bill, signed by 67 Democrats and nine Republicans, had enough votes to pass. It would have set Texas on the path to join the majority of US states (38 so far) that have expanded their populations’ eligibility for Medicaid—which provides healthcare insurance to low-income groups—since it became a possibility under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In Texas, Medicaid is only available to those whose income is 17% of the federal poverty line, or $3,700 a year for a family with two children. In most of the country, the threshold is $30,300 (138% of the federal poverty line). As a result, the state leads the country in uninsured rates. More than 18% of the population, or 5 million Texans, lacks health insurance—double the national rate. The situation was worsened by the pandemic, as people lost healthcare coverage in layoffs, making Medicaid expansion all the more relevant. At the same time, new federal incentives made it less burdensome than ever for the state.

Yet the bill was never brought to the House floor, as the Republican leadership opposed it based on two main arguments. The first was that the expansion isn’t financially sustainable in the long run. The second was ideological: Opponents of the expansion think it promotes dependency on government support while taking resources away from children and others in need, to the benefits of individuals who don’t deserve the help.

The uninsured Texans, known as the “working poor,” include about 1.4 million hourly or low-wage workers. These people, disproportionately Hispanic (61% of the uninsured) tend to have low levels of education (48% of the uninsured don’t have a high school degree), and earn less than $35,000 a year despite typically working full-time, often in jobs such as construction or the service industry.

They are, in other words, part of the working class—a group to which precisely zero Texas legislators belong.

Would the path of the Medicaid expansion—or at least the motivations to deny it—be different if more of the elected officials had direct experience in low-wage, working-class jobs? It’s likely, according to research by Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, who has been studying whether being part of the working class has an impact on legislator voting behavior.

There are no working-class legislators  in Texas

The Texas legislature isn’t very representative of the state. Out of its 181 members—150 representatives and 31 senators—just three (1.7%) are Asian, 18 (10%) are Black, and 43 (23%) are Hispanic, even though nearly 60% of Texans are non-white. Women are underrepresented too, making up just over a quarter of the legislature. The lack of diversity is especially striking among Republican legislators: Out of 101, 98 are white, and 88 male.

Yet those gaps are much less significant than the gulf between Texans in working-class jobs and the lawmakers representing them. More than 7 million Texans, or 59% of the workforce, hold jobs Carnes classifies as working-class—such as in construction, the service industry, or in clerical roles—and 83% don’t hold a college degree. But according to data compiled by Carnes and Eric Hansen of Loyola University Chicago, there are no legislators who fit either of these characteristics.

Conversely, 31% of legislators in the statehouse are lawyers, while lawyers make up only 0.4% of the working population of Texas.

Representation matters when it comes to social policies, as it increases the likelihood that bills benefiting a represented group will be considered.

“Most Americans sort of feel like the government is out of touch with them.”

This kind of closeness between people’s identities and experiences and their voting records gets at the core of a longstanding debate over just how representative a representative democracy really is. “Most Americans sort of feel like the government is out of touch with them, but there’s an opportunity for them to feel more empowered when there are more people in office who look like them,” says Brian Schaffner, a professor of civic studies at Tufts University.

For example, “[w]hen there are more women in legislatures, it’s not necessarily that the women vote more liberally on women’s issues than a male Democrat would. But what happens is that more bills get introduced that focus on issues that are particularly important to women,” Schaffner says.

Similarly, lower representation of women and minorities clears the path for bills that work against their interests. The actions of Texas’s legislature are consistent with these findings. The most restrictive anti-abortion law in the US (and one of the most restrictive in the world) was passed by a male-majority legislature, as were measures that restrict access to voting, particularly for minorities. These kinds of laws have an easier time being imposed by a legislative body where whites are disproportionately represented, especially in the majority party (Republicans, in the case of Texas).

Carnes’s research suggests a similar phenomenon is at play when it comes to economic policy. By studying the composition of legislatures and the voting records, he found votes on economic and social programs, including healthcare coverage, are predicted by one indicator more than all others: the job the legislator held when they were elected to office.

What would the working class do?

According to Carnes’ findings, elected officials who hold working-class positions (pdf) tend to be more worker-friendly and progressive on domestic policy issues, such as social safety-net programs or tax policy. The nature of the legislator’s job, he found, was even more predictive than income, or education level—although many working-class people have lower education levels.

“Even within the same party, politicians who come from sort of different economic circumstances often behave differently,” he says.

The same pattern can be found in confidential surveys of politicians that record not their public actions and statements, but personal positions, Carnes says. Legislators with working-class backgrounds, for instance, are relatively more likely to favor liberal economic policies, than other legislators.

“To me, that really reinforces this idea that this really is about who they are, and their background, and how that influences their outlook on the world,” Carnes says.

“People from working-class jobs almost never become politicians.”

So when there are no working-class people in a legislature—as is the case in Texas—there are fewer chances of lawmakers passing, or even introducing, proposals such as Medicaid expansion, and a greater chance lawmakers don’t believe the potential recipients of government support are worthy of it.

When elected officials share the identities of the people they represent—what political scientists refer to as “descriptive representation”—it usually reflects the lowering of systemic barriers and encourages trust in democratic institutions. But an excessive focus on descriptive representation also can reveal a distrust for the concept of representative democracy, which doesn’t require that elected officials match the makeup of the electorate—only that they be chosen by the voters.

“Most of the people [who support descriptive representation] are friendly with the idea that direct democracy would be ideal, and representative democracy is kind of like the second-best,” says Alin Fumurescu, a professor of political science at the University of Houston who researches self-identification in politics. “However, another school of thought says that representative democracy is actually better than direct democracy because the legislators  are supposed to refine—so to speak—the interest of the general population, and they are much better equipped educationally.”

Voters may in fact prefer to choose a more educated, elite class of people to debate the issues of the day on their behalf. But the problem in places like Texas is that choice is almost never available because people from poorer economic backgrounds rarely even get the opportunity to run for office.

“People from working-class jobs almost never become politicians,” says Carnes. “And so you do see decision-making tilt towards the kinds of policies that more affluent people and white-collar professionals want, and away from the sort of bread-and-butter domestic economic reforms that tend to be more popular with lower-income and working-class people.”

What are the barriers to working-class representation?

The lack of working-class lawmakers in the Texas legislature is systemic in nature, and begins with the very design of the job.

“The most important barrier is that the job doesn’t pay a living wage,” says Joseph McCartin, director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Despite serving the second-largest population of any state, and having a job that demands about two-thirds of a full-time position, members of the Texas legislature are among the lowest-paid politicians in the country.

The legislature is part-time, and the base salary is $600 a month, to which a per-diem allowance of $221 is added when the lawmaker is in Austin or on official business. The salary was last updated in 1975, and the allowance was raised in 2019.

“It’s a legislature set up beautifully for people who are either lawyers or small-business people or people who work for corporations that are willing to give them time away from their work,” says McCartin.

Running for office “is just out of reach.”

Someone with a working-class job without other sources of income wouldn’t be able to afford to reduce their work hours, let alone quit a job with benefits, for such a small salary. High earners, particularly ones who can work independently, can make up for being underpaid as lawmakers with their other income.

“In a lot of working-class jobs in Texas, where people are working from very early in the morning to very late in the evening, they sometimes have to have two jobs in order to cover their expenses,” says Juan Belmán Guerrero, a community organizer from Texas who serves as the program manager for the Kalmanovitz Initiative.

Belmán Guerrero, who occasionally worked alongside his father in construction, says too many working-class jobs don’t pay enough to allow potential candidates to run for office, much less serve. That doesn’t mean people in this demographic don’t have the skills, or will, to run.

“There’s plenty of people who I think would be great at this job and who would run for that position if it was accessible to them,” says Belmán Guerrero. He points to the local leadership on display during a historic winter freeze and power outage that killed hundreds of Texans and left millions without electricity or heat in early 2021. “[Y]ou saw a lot of leaders in our community mobilized real quick to find housing supply and food, find warm places for individuals. And you have all these great leaders who I think would do an amazing job,” Belmán Guerrero says. But running for office “is just out of reach for many of them.”

Working-class Texans—who often have inflexible schedules and little to no paid leave—lack the time, let alone the money, which would be needed to put up a campaign.

The Texas legislature’s exclusion of the working class was by design

In a state like Texas, says Georgetown’s McCartin, the exclusion of the working-class is by design and a byproduct of the state’s history. “When the legislature was created, Texas was a place where only white people could vote…and where landowners and developers had inordinate power, and the legislature was set up to be responsive to where that power was,” he says.

In order to reflect changes that the state—and the country—underwent in the past 60 years, the system should allow members of all economic classes to run for office, not just in theory but in practice. Establishing the job of representative as a full-time role, with full-time pay, would be an essential first step, McCartin says.

Carnes’s research suggests raising the salary doesn’t necessarily solve the issue of working-class representation—better pay makes the job more attractive to wealthier candidates,  too—but McCartin argues that it’s a necessary, if not sufficient, reform.

The majority of state legislatures in the US are part-time, although all of the states with populations comparable to Texas’s—California, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania—have full-time, well-paid staff. Across the US, the labor movement has been pushing to change state offices to full-time positions, with higher pay, but it’s not easy in Texas. The state constitution dictates the amount of time the legislature works (140 days every other year), and the salary of legislators. Salaries can be adjusted by the Texas Ethics Commission and approved by voters, but a constitutional amendment would be necessary to turn the legislature into a full-time job.

Organized efforts to elect working-class legislators, typically supported by unions, have been successful in states with strong labor movements, such as Massachusetts. But so long as Texas continues to have a part-time, underpaid legislature, there are slim chances that much progress will be made—including for expanding necessary services such as Medicaid.

“It’s one of the most important yet least talked about things, that working people don’t really see themselves reflected in the leadership of their government,” McCartin says “And when people don’t see government leaders who…have experienced some of the same things that they are experiencing, people lose faith in democratically elected officials, and that weakens democracy.”

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