Skip to main content

The Price We Pay for Having Upper-Class Legislators

There is a coordinated, nationwide effort to roll back child labor laws, part of a broader campaign to concentrate even more power into the hands of employers.

A movement to weaken child labor laws has roots in the composition of our legislatures.,Lewis W. Hine

There is a coordinated, nationwide effort to roll back child labor laws, part of a broader campaign to concentrate even more power into the hands of employers.

“Since 2021,” the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute notes, “28 states have introduced bills to weaken child labor laws, and 12 states have enacted them.” In 2024 alone, eight states have either introduced or taken new action on bills that would, for example, allow employers to schedule 16- and 17-year-olds for unlimited hours, allow nonprofits to hire 12- and 13-year-olds and eliminate work permits for young people.

One way to understand this fight to roll back labor laws is as a function of conservative ideology and a reflection of the views of the social base of Republican politics. It’s almost axiomatic that a party dominated by reactionary business owners is going to support, as much as possible, the interests of reactionary business owners.

But this analysis can take us only so far. We also have to explain why it is, on a practical level, that this agenda has advanced so far and so fast. There is partisan control, of course — Republicans are leading the assault on labor laws — but there is also the class composition of our state legislatures.

Out of more than 7,300 state legislators in the country, 116 — or 1.6 percent of the total — currently work or last worked in manual labor, the service industry or clerical or union jobs, according to a recent study conducted by Nicholas Carnes and Eric Hansen, political scientists at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago. By contrast, about 50 percent of U.S. workers hold jobs in one of those fields.

This problem afflicts both parties. In the last legislative session, the study found, 1 percent of Republican lawmakers and 2 percent of Democratic lawmakers had working-class backgrounds. In 10 states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia — not a single state lawmaker works or has recently worked in an occupation that researchers would define as working class. Three of those states, incidentally, are ones in which lawmakers recently loosened rules on child labor.

What explains the almost total absence of working-class people from elected positions in state government? It may have something to do with how we structure our legislatures. Let’s look at Congress as a base line. The House and Senate are full-time legislatures with considerable staffs and resources at their disposal. Members work through the year and are paid accordingly: $174,000 per annum, with pay increases for those in leadership positions.

Now, there is a case to make that Congress needs more staff and higher pay — that to attract the best candidates for federal office, compensation should be competitive with salaries in private-sector fields of similar power, prestige and responsibility. The main point, however, is that Congress is at least structured in a way that would make it possible for a working-class person to do the job without jeopardizing his or her financial security (although this still leaves us with the problem of actually winning a seat).

You cannot say the same for most of our state legislatures. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 10 states have full-time legislatures, in which lawmakers spend at least 84 percent of their time engaged in the position, including on the legislative floor, in hearings and in committee meetings and doing constituent service. They are paid full-time salaries as well, with average annual compensation of about $82,000. On the other end, there are 14 states where the job is essentially part-time and lawmakers are paid accordingly, earning an average salary of just over $18,000 a year. The remaining states are classified as hybrid legislatures, in which lawmakers devote about 74 percent of their time to legislative duties, with an average annual salary around $41,000.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Setting aside the difficulty of getting elected — the necessity of raising money from wealthy friends, family and acquaintances that most Americans simply do not have — if working-class people of modest means somehow won state legislative positions, they would almost certainly have to sacrifice a large part of their incomes to do so. Our legislatures are not built to allow working people to participate as members. Neither, for that matter, is our political system writ large.

It is not too difficult to imagine the changes that might make our elected institutions, including Congress, more inclusive of working people. We would need, for example, a stronger and more robust system of campaign finance. We would need resources to move more legislatures to full-time status, including funds for more staff and higher salaries. And we would need the kinds of accommodations that, frankly, all Americans deserve: child care, housing and good health insurance.

The problem is that all of this runs counter to our ingrained hostility to politics and politicians — our cynical distrust of, even contempt for, people who choose to make a career of elected office. We don’t want to raise their pay or give them more of what they need to do their jobs well; we want to cut as much as we can and impose term limits while we’re at it.

In this way, we get the legislatures — and legislators — that we pay for: a whole lot of wealthy people interested in pursuing their own goals and not much else.

Jamelle Bouie became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2019. Before that he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. He is based in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington. @jbouie

A version of this article appears in print on May 5, 2024, Section SR, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: The Price We Pay for Rich Lawmakers.