PROMO 660 x 440 Government - Colorado Capitol - iStock

Study: Working class woefully underrepresented in state legislatures

Mike Moen

Click play to listen to this article.

Audio file

(Prairie News Service) In North Dakota and all other states, the backgrounds of people serving in state legislatures largely leave out a key demographic, the working class, according to a new national study.

Researchers at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago said their study found the share of legislators across the country who have mainly held working-class jobs as adults was below 2 percent in 2023. In contrast, 50 percent of the U.S. labor force is made up of manual labor workers, the service industry and clerical or union jobs.

Eric Hansen, assistant professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago and co-author of the report, said the data represent a clear disconnect. 

PROMO Government - Politics Letters Scrabble Tiles - Pixabay - Wokandapix

© Pixabay - Wokandapix

"There's this real sense that government and elected officials are really out of touch with the population," Hansen observed. "One of the reasons for that is because our elected officials don't really come from the same set of backgrounds that most Americans come from."

He argued boosting the ranks could restore trust and usher in more economic policies helping those with lower incomes. It is not a partisan issue, with the study noting the small percentage of existing legislators who are working class is almost equal among Democrats and Republicans.

For a rural state like North Dakota, experts said small communities have unique economic challenges, and the data show less than 1 percent of state lawmakers here are working class. 

However, 15 percent do have farming backgrounds, second to only the business sector, which is at 41 percent in North Dakota. Meanwhile, Hansen noted the cost of campaigning is often a barrier to working-class residents who might consider running. 

"It's just really hard to support yourself and campaign when you are holding a working-class job," Hansen acknowledged.

Researchers said because of the way the campaign finance system is structured, it is hard to foster solutions. But they emphasized recruiters can do their part by trying to make more connections with people who work lower-wage jobs and gauge whether they can become more involved and potentially run for a seat.