Feb 25, 2020

Diversity in Congress: By the Numbers + Why It Matters

By Jacob Greenblatt

On November 6, 2018, voters went to the polls and ushered in the most diverse Congress in American history. Congress’s changing composition signifies that the diversity among America’s national population is becoming increasingly reflected in our nation’s legislative body. Regardless, much more work remains.   

Within the current, 116th Congress, nonwhite racial and ethnic groups including African Americans, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans now account for 22% of Congress. To put this in a historical perspective, the 79th Congress (1945-46) saw only 1% of its members represent nonwhite racial or ethnic groups. The 116th Congress has also seen the first two Muslim women to ever serve in Congress. Furthermore, the 2018 midterms rightfully earned the label “Year of the Woman” as Congress saw its total make-up include 127 women (24%) which continues a slow but steady trend of more female members in Congress.

Despite these significant compositional changes, Congress is still lagging, as the country’s share of nonwhites is 39%, 17 points greater than what we see in Congress today. While some groups such as African Americans and Native Americans have shares in Congress equal to that of their share in the national population, other groups including Hispanics and Asians are underrepresented in Congress by 50% compared to their share of the national population (18% and 6%, respectively). Regarding gender, 51% of the country’s population is made up of women, but with female lawmakers making up 24% of Congress, there’s significant room to grow in this area.

Why does the diversity of Congress matter? The more diverse America’s institutions are, the more representative they are of the nation. All individuals are shaped by their personal experiences, and many of these experiences take root in individual identity and experience. When America’s diverse collection of identities is reflected in Congress, these voices provide a greater say and parity in legislative outcomes.

What’s more: Congress is actively working to cultivate greater diversity among staff on Capitol Hill. Last year, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing on how to increase diversity and improve retention among congressional staffers. The hearing emphasized important points: centralizing human resources; increasing benefits; improving communication between members and their staff; recruiting diverse candidates; and developing mentorship, sponsorship, and leadership programs are all interrelated solutions that allow Congress’s trend of increasing diversity to play-out on the staff level. Each of these recommendations is intended to diversify and strengthen the type of staff working on Capitol Hill.    

Congress is entering a new era in its identity and its relationship with the identity of America’s population. Recent elections have changed Congress’s composition from race to ethnicity to gender to religion, making it more reflective of America at large. However, there is still significant progress that must be made if Congress is going to more fully reflect the American demographics represented in its population. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is working toward that goal, and it will be exciting to see what changes voters bring about in the composition of Congress on November 3, 2020.

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