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Would Higher Pay For Politicians Put More Working Class People In Office?

stack of money
Flickr user 401(K)2013

State legislatures are filled with white collar professionals – attorneys, business owners or career politicians – and fewer working-class professionals like teachers, laborers or service industry workers. This has led some reformers to suggest that if legislatures increased leaders' salaries, political office would become more accessible to middle- and working-class candidates.Political science researchers Nick Carnes of Duke University and Eric Hansen of UNC-Chapel Hill recently set out to test the idea. In a new study, Carnes said the answer is no.

The study, published in the American Political Science Review, found that legislatures with higher salaries actually have fewer working-class people in office. The research examines pay in all 50 state legislatures and survey data on politicians and candidates' most recent occupations.

The findings may comes as a surprise to reform advocates who say raising legislators' salaries levels the playing field for candidates of different economic backgrounds. Carnes said he hears this argument often, but was skeptical.

Instead, Carnes said the high cost of campaigning is what keeps many people from running, not pay.

"If someone can’t afford to take time off and run a six month campaign, it doesn’t really matter what salary they would receive if they won," said Carnes. "If they have to give up their income to campaign, it makes no difference."

Higher salaries for political offices also create more competition in election season.

"What tends to happen is that even more affluent people run for political office and make it even harder for middle and working class people to break into politics," Carnes said.

Higher paid legislatures tend to have wealthier representatives -- with more career politicians -- and are less representative of the general population economically. More than half the country works in manual labor or service industry jobs, while just three percent of state legislators held blue-collar jobs before getting into politics.

On the other hand, Carnes said research shows that higher pay has many other benefits for legislatures. Higher paid representatives tend to introduce more legislation, miss fewer votes and be more in line with their constituents.

The salary for North Carolina’s legislature is below the national average. Carnes said this reflects the fact that the legislature does not meet full-time throughout the year.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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