Getting elected to Congress can be bad for your bank account – UPDATED

October 11, 2012

Eddie Murphy's scheme to get elected to Congress for the dough isn't as airtight as it may have seemed in 1992.

Correction: The original version of this post used raw, unweighted Survey of Consumer Finances data and drew erroneous conclusions as a result. I apologize for the errors. The below version uses the weighted data. Thanks to Joseph Rosenberg and Greg Leiserson of the Urban Institute and David Rosnick of the Center for Economic and Policy Research for alerting me to the issue.

My colleagues over at the graphics department have put together a really incredible graphic on the net worth of members of the House and Senate to complement Dan Keating, Scott Higham, Kimberly Kindy and David S. Fallis's excellent piece on how wealthy members of Congress haven't been hit that hard by the recession.

Overall, members of Congress are much wealthier than the average person. The median congressman or senator has a net worth of $877,017; that's 11 times the median American's net worth in 2010 ($77,300, according to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances).

But then again, demographically one would expect the people in Congress to be richer than average. For one thing, members of Congress have much more formal education than the population at large, and in particular more graduate education:

According to the Congressional Research Service, 92 percent of congressmen and 99 percent of senators have at least a bachelor's; that compares to 27.5 percent of the U.S. as a whole. More than half of the Senate (55 members) and 38 percent of the House have a law degree. 

By contrast, 30.41 percent of Americans graduated high school but never went to college. Only four members of Congress — Reps. Stephen Fincher (R-Ky.), Mike Michaud (D-Maine), Bob Brady (D-Pa.), and Grace Napolitano (D-Ariz.) — are in that situation. While 13.34 percent of Americans dropped out of high school, the only congressman or senator to leave without a diploma is Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.).

What's more, the vast majority (85.4 percent) of Congress is white, and the median age is 59, compared to around 37 in the country at large. Whites have more money than other racial groups, and people tend to accumulate wealth as they age.

So what does a more apples-to-apples comparison look like? To find out, I computed the median net worth for each race, education level and age level, and saw how congressmen compared to their demographic groups.* I found that, on average, congressmen are worth more than you'd expect given their race, education level and age -- $275,456 more, to be precise. But that's not true across the board. Here's what the median congressman at each age is worth, compared to median whites with a graduate degree (a category into which 57.4 percent of Congress falls):

For a lot of members in their 40s and 50s, being in Congress is a worse deal than being in the private sector.

No group does worse in Congress than out of it, but some groups get more of a boost. Grad degree-holders get a much smaller net worth boost than their peers with less education:

There aren't enough high school dropouts and college non-attendees in Congress to draw many conclusions from their financial status, but the higher net worth for college dropouts and bachelor's degree recipients in Congress is striking.

Same deal for race. Here's how graduate degree holders of each race compare to grad degree holders in Congress:

Everyone benefits, but black and Hispanic representatives especially.

* I used the Survey of Consumer Finances' Summary Extract Data, converted it to CSV using PyDTA, and wrote this script using the awesome Pandas library to generate the median net worth figures. I used a five-year band on ages to prevent outliers from biasing the estimates, and then removed obvious outliers. For example, it appears the only household in the sample headed by an 81- to 85-year-old African American who went to grad school has a net worth of $35 million, which makes 82- and 83 year-old (respectively) black law degree holders Charlie Rangel and John Conyers look much worse off than they actually are.

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Ezra Klein · October 11, 2012