Study: Only 2% of state lawmakers come from working class

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  • The striking disparity shows that while anyone can technically run for office, the individuals likely to hold public office are "overwhelmingly drawn from America’s professional classes." - Nicholas Carnes, Duke University

State legislators in all 50 states play a fundamental role in shaping American life, but fewer than 2% come directly out of the “working class,” a new study finds.

Researchers from Duke University and Loyola University-Chicago used publicly available biographical information to collect data on legislators’ current or most recent main occupation outside of elected office. Just 116 (1.6%) legislators out of the nation’s 7,386 state legislative seats currently or last worked in manual labor, the service industry, clerical positions, or other jobs that the researchers classified as “working-class.” About 1% of Republicans and 2% of Democrats worked those types of jobs, indicating a ‘bipartisan issue,’ as author Eric Hansen noted.

STUDY: NC has no lawmakers from “working class”

In North Carolina particularly, zero current lawmakers hold or last worked in a job considered working-class, showing what they say is a stark contrast between the labor force and the elected leaders who represent them. Nine other states joined North Carolina in not having a single lawmaker who currently or last worked in a working-class occupation: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.

Why would working-class Americans not sit among those elected to state legislatures? Opportunity cost, explained Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at NC State.

“The opportunity costs for those who serve are significant. As a result, the only people who can really serve are those who can offload their working obligations to others–generally small business owners–or are retired,” Taylor said.

drawbacks of serving in NC legislature

Working as a state legislator comes with plenty of drawbacks in North Carolina. For one, the base salary of about $14,000 is nearly the lowest among all states. Legislative sessions have also become much longer, more protracted proceedings in recent years. Drawn out negotiations on weighty issues such as the budget, redistricting, and efforts to override gubernatorial vetoes, often make legislators’ schedules unpredictable.

The average age of all state legislatures leadership is 58, putting the most influential voices in every state near retirement age, a time when people can more often sacrifice a steady source of income. The study’s co-author, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke University, says the striking disparity shows that while anyone can technically run for office, the individuals most likely to hold public office are “overwhelmingly drawn from America’s professional classes.”

Legislative reforms could address the disparity by delivering salary bumps or session limits. However, working-class representation may not be such a critical issue to voters, Taylor suggests. Like other careers, a proven skillset could be a factor Americans favor.

do voters care?

“The question is: Does it matter? I am skeptical it does,” revealed Taylor.


“In fact, the public may prefer legislators who are not working class,” he added. “Americans look at legislator as a profession and, like other prominent positions–doctor, lawyer, engineer, running a large business–believe that to do it well requires training and advanced educational credentials.  With such a background comes knowledge and skill and legislating that produces the best policies for the state.”

Voters don’t seem to care at the polls, and the study confirms that all states have very few working-class legislators. North Carolina voters have overwhelmingly elected businessmen to lead the state’s public policy. The most common occupation category among North Carolina lawmakers is the business sector. Self-employment offers lawmakers flexibility and the advantage of creating their own schedule as government matters transpire.

The analysis did not consider business owners, sole proprietors, and farm owners working-class, but it did count people employed by those groups. The findings represent a slight decrease from the prior legislative session when 129 state legislators (1.8%) were from working-class occupational backgrounds.