Study By Loyola Professor Finds Less Than 2% of State Legislators Are Working-Class

Loyola professor Dr. Eric Hansen co-authored a February study that found only 1.6% of state legislators nationwide come from a working-class background.

Loyola professor Dr. Eric Hansen co-authored a February study that found only 1.6% of state legislators nationwide come from a working-class background.

Hansen, an associate professor of political science, worked with Duke University researchers to compile occupational data on the 7,283 state legislators who held office in 2023.

Hansen said the research team defined legislators as “working-class” if their current or most recent primary occupation besides their elected position was in manual labor, the service industry, clerical work or a labor union. He said they defined the category based on occupation rather than income because some jobs like teaching in higher education pay low salaries but have high social prestige.

The study covered state lawmakers holding office during the 2023-24 legislative term but included lawmakers from states with off-year election cycles whose terms ended last year, according to Hansen.

Hansen, who co-authored the study with Duke political science professor Dr. Nicholas Carnes, said the results show a disparity between elected officials and their constituents which has implications for the representativeness of government.

“50% of the American adult population, roughly speaking, has a job in one of these categories, but only about 1.5% of state legislators do,” Hansen said. “It points to this disconnect where the people that are serving in our elected offices don’t really look like the people that they are representing, at least in economic or occupational terms.”

Hansen said he thinks working-class underrepresentation is primarily due to the way electoral processes work, such as the financial resources needed to run a campaign combined with fundraising laws which prohibit misuse of donor funds but also pose a barrier to people who have little money saved.

The type of people who recruit potential office holders are often white-collar professionals who lack connections with working-class people, further limiting opportunities for working-class people to enter electoral politics, according to Hansen.

Hansen said Carnes, a colleague of Hansen’s for 11 years, won a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2020 and decided to collect more consistent data on working-class representation, which has been collected sporadically since the late 1970s.

Carnes approached Hansen in April 2021 after deciding he wanted to use the grant for the project. Loyola students collected similar data using publicly available online resources for the 2021-22 legislative cycle, according to Hansen. He said Duke undergraduate research assistants did the data collection for this year’s study from February to November.

Second-year Judah Hays worked with Hansen last fall to corroborate the data set from the Duke researchers for separate research examining how holding prior office impacts elected officials’ effectiveness at passing legislation.

Hays said publicly available information online allows for quicker data collection but the inconsistent design of state government websites made some information difficult to find.

“It’s kind of tricky, because a lot of those state websites are really difficult to search or don’t even have a search option,” Hays said. “And all these people aren’t listed in one coherent place, so it was a lot of digging around and using different search tools.”

Kirshma Raj, a second-year who worked on the same project as Hays, said using the Duke researchers’ data showed the importance of looking at information in a research setting to identify broader patterns.

“Just knowing one person’s demographics or their prior offices isn’t gonna tell you anything,” Raj said. “But being able to compile all that information together and see the trends, and see what their research found and basically how much their history affects their political office or how much it doesn’t affect their political office, because a lot of it was very surprising.”

Assistant professor of political science Dr. Agustin Markarian said while some researchers argue that party identification is the primary consideration for voters, civic participation can be impacted when elected officials share demographic characteristics with their constituents.

“Generally speaking, some people will argue that it’s not really about the characteristics of a person, but that party ID matters more,” Markarian said. “What we do see is that Black elected officials are more likely to have an office in Black communities, elected officials from working class backgrounds are more likely to put their office in working class communities.”

Hansen said the study connects to his and Carnes’ prior research on the impacts of raising legislators’ salaries. While some advocates argue increased pay would enable more working-class people to enter politics, it can draw increased competition from affluent people and deter working-class candidacies, according to a 2016 study by Hansen and Carnes published in American Political Science Review. 

Markarian said the information the research team found for this year’s study is valuable because not many resources are dedicated to collecting descriptive data on politicians below the federal level.

“We don’t have very good data on the background of state legislators, city councilors, people that are not in Congress,” Markarian said. “When it comes to Congress, there’s pretty amazing descriptive data on the biographics and backgrounds of members of the House and Senate. But on state levels and local levels, that’s super rare.”

Hays said he thinks research outlining this type of data is important for informing voters in a democratic society and validates concerns held by many young Americans.

“I think that lends some legitimacy to some of the fears that many young people in the American public have, that maybe these legislators aren’t sufficiently connected to everyday people’s needs,” Hays said. “And I think it’s definitely a valid thing to keep in mind — it’s a point that should be raised.”

Featured image by Austin Hojdar / The Phoenix

Colin Hart

Colin Hart