Holding Congress Accountable for the State of Poverty
As elected officials, members of Congress are obligated to represent every individual in their district or state, regardless of income. Sadly, judging by their voting records, some members ignore their responsibilities to serve their poorest constituents. There could be many reasons for this (low voter turnout and even lower levels of financial contribution to candidates), but while these may be explanations, they are certainly not excuses. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law insists that legislators seek to represent every citizen fairly.
For this reason, we've created the 2006 Congressional Midterm Report. We must hold members of Congress accountable to represent the needs of the poorest among us.
The Shriver Center chose six bills from both houses of Congress, each focusing on issues affecting low-income people. We examined the corresponding votes of Congress to determine how often each elected official voted with their low-income constituents. The State of Poverty, with 37 million residents, is our nation's most populous state. We were disappointed to see that many members of Congress blatantly disregarded the needs of its residents.
Some of those members represent the Gulf Region. One in four Mississippians make less than $15,000, yet Senators Cochran and Lott scored 33% and 17% when it came to voting to advance the interests of their low-income constituents. In Alabama, where, according to Census statistics from 2005, 46.7% of African American children live in poverty, neither Senator Sessions nor Senator Shelby voted with low-income families on a single bill identified in our midterm report.
This lack of leadership was not relegated to the Gulf Region. Democratic Representatives Rick Larsen and Brian Baird of the state of Washington voted to repeal the Estate Tax, as did the entire House delegation of West Virginia (two Democrats and one Republican), despite the fact that 0.5% and 0.2% of decedents in those states paid the tax in 2003. In New Mexico's 2nd District, Rep. Steven Pearce voted against LIHEAP, a program that helps poor Americans pay their energy bills, even though one in four of his constituents would have been eligible for the aid. In Kentucky's 5th District, Rep. Harold Rogers voted with low-income people only once in our report. Yet, the median income in his district is $22,000, eight counties in the district have a per capita income less than half that, and 28.1% of his constituents are at or below the federal poverty line.
Our scorecard, of course, can only provide a picture about performances on legislation that was allowed to move at all in Congress. There is no report, for example, on legislation to provide healthcare for all of America's children, or a bill to address in some significant way the crisis of affordable housing. We are disappointed with many votes on the record, but we are more disappointed at the lack of significant action and an unwillingness even to consider and debate the pressing issues of need, equal opportunity, and economic justice. As a body, Congress is ignoring the State of Poverty, and that affects us all.