“If you want to make a difference, run for office.”
Chances are, if you’ve ever had a passion for changemaking, you’ve heard this somewhere or you’ve read this somewhere before. Running for office is one of the most obvious ways to create change; however, the truth of the matter is that it can be an incredibly difficult path to choose. Over the past few election cycles, we are seeing increasing numbers of people of color and young people running for office. That’s good news.
But why is it so hard in the first place? One thing we don’t discuss enough and is how and why running for office and being an elected official is not accessible for everyone. In this commentary, I will cover these reasons, going over them as they apply to the three parts of public service: the prep, the run, and the service.
The prep is the period of time before a person runs for office, denoting the time before a person decides to run through until the actual run begins. What often gets left out of prep discussions, however, are the kinds of opportunities and credentials a candidate might have been able to get even before considering running for office. In 2020, 95 percent of members in the House of Representatives had a degree. Since 2013, about 60 percent of undergraduate students have completed an internship. Another example of an obvious inequity in accessing government roles is the frequency of these internships being unpaid, but nonetheless a clear pathway to full-time jobs. Only 9 percent of legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, pay their interns, and in a study conducted by Pay Our Interns, the conclusion was that students “who obtain internships are better positioned to receive a job offer, while those who were not as fortunate face additional hurdles when trying to seek employment.”
For students coming from families or communities with little to no income, it can feel impossible to expect them to give time and energy to a job with no payment. This trend helps to create a perpetual cycle of inequity, and the cycle must end.
The combination of internships and college degree requirements are some of the first barriers pre-professionals experience. Most high-paying, entry-level professions now require some form of a degree, and even more prestigious roles and programs prefer some form of an internship. Some time between the beginning and the end of a degree program, students sometimes feel the pressure of acquiring an internship. Internships are incredibly helpful to both gain experience and develop a network, but for the longest time it was widely accepted to have college students working for free. Pay Our Interns is an organization created by American University students who when asked to intern on Capitol Hill, had to turn down the job of their dreams—simply because they could not afford to work without pay. For students coming from families or communities with little to no income, it can feel impossible to expect them to give time and energy to a job with no payment. This trend helps to create a perpetual cycle of inequity, and the cycle must end.
After the prep, there is the actual run for office, and as FiveThirtyEight states in their research on the correlation between money and elections, the candidate who spends the most money usually wins. Fundraising for elections usually requires asking people for help in supporting what they hope to be your victory—whether individuals, committees, or PACs. There is a lot of insider knowledge necessary to distinguish the best people to ask, where to form coalitions, and which groups to lobby. One would argue that this is an easier task when you already have the resources, knowledge, and network necessary—making it harder to raise funds for a campaign if you’re without several layers of privilege.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made history as the youngest woman elected into Congress, and her story was told and retold worldwide. Before then, she was a young Latina from the Bronx with endless dreams. When she was elected, she couldn’t even afford an apartment in Washington, D.C., where the median rent was $2,700. Special resources should not be given to policymakers in any circumstance, but there is no reason a United States representative should have a job and be forced to struggle for housing given the low payment of the position. This system simply allows for people like AOC to be consistently left out.
The 2020 election made history as, despite a global pandemic and the resulting recession, the election spending hit $11 billion. Presidential elections are arguably the most popular election in the United States, but these high numbers account for both the network, popularity, and resources of the presidential candidates. With 53.69 percent of the total spending coming from Democrats, the balance of funding in the 2020 election proved favorable for the Democratic Party.
Elected officials have the unique responsibility to represent the people who elected them and work to enact positive change. The agenda of an elected official is aligned with their personal morals, but ultimately, their goals must be those of the people they represent. Simply put, elected officials have the power to influence the lives of the many, and are expected to do so by putting the many first.
What some elected officials can lack, though, when they have won their campaign, is a living wage. Not only is this a problem, it perpetuates a cycle of certain demographics not being able to run for office or sustain themselves while in office.
For example, Texas is the largest state by population, and the second largest by land, spanning across 260,000 square miles. One lesser-known fact about the state of Texas, though, is that it does not pay its state lawmakers a living wage. Set by its ethics committee, Texas legislators earn a paltry $7,200 base salary per year, plus an additional $221 per day in session. According to the Texas Constitution, Texas legislators are not allowed to be in session for more than 140 days; this means the most a state legislator could earn in a given year is $38,140. To be a policymaker is to have a job that is both time- and energy-consuming. It is an elected official’s job to think about the needs of countless others’ lives, and a $7,200 base for an entire year, plus an unknown amount for days in session, is simply not a living wage. The median income in Austin, the capital of Texas, is about $51,500. It is unreasonable to expect people to survive and thrive, putting their best selves forward on the behalf of their constituents, off so little.
Texas legislators earn a paltry $7,200 base salary per year, plus an additional $221 per day in session.
Despite the poor pay, Texas doesn’t lack for legislators. This should cause anyone to assume the people running for office either are (1) receiving funds from another job, thus having to dedicate energy to multiple places as opposed to fully serving the people of Texas; or 2) already have resources to be able to live off of such an unreasonable base salary. Not being able to pay people a living wage creates exclusion: it makes it less likely that people without resources will be able to do these jobs. In order to create a public workforce that allows for different types of people to be elected, elected officials should simply be paid a living wage. In an Los Angeles Times column outlining why we need this increase at the federal government, the columnist says, “Reducing compensation for federal legislators would make Congress immeasurably worse. It would become even more of a club for plutocrats than it is now by making it harder for those with modest resources to run for and stay on Capitol Hill.”
Similar to unpaid internships, low-wage jobs can create an unnecessary barrier. While it is entirely possible for someone of a lower income to be an elected official and create income outside of this job, it’s an extra hurdle that others don’t have to jump through. If we don’t create an environment of inclusion, an environment of exclusion will appear automatically.
If we don’t create an environment of inclusion, an environment of exclusion will appear automatically.
Paying people for their work—and not only paying them, but paying them a living wage—is essential. Being able to run for office, hold elected office, and get a path into government jobs, and do so knowing you will be able to sustain yourself, is a necessity for this country and is more than a long time coming. If we want to see change in policy, we must change who is elected; and that starts by changing the game and paying officials a fair wage.