The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How growing up poor changes politicians

Democrats from humble backgrounds more often vote for economic policies that help the lower class. For Republicans, upbringing doesn't matter.

Rep. Brad Miller grew up working class, and that mattered. (Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg News)

Former Rep. Brad Miller’s father was one of eleven children born in a small, poor town in North Carolina. Neither of Miller's parents could afford to finish college. And after his father died when Miller was 12, his mother supported them on her bookkeeper’s salary. Miller and his older brother were the first generation to finish college, or to travel outside the country without joining the military — to say nothing of reaching reaching Columbia Law School, the North Carolina State House and the halls of Congress.

“I recently found out that my mother had all of her teeth removed because she went decades without going to a dentist,” says Miller, reflecting on how she must have shorted herself to care for her children. “She didn’t tell me or anyone else what we were doing without.”

That trajectory might make Miller unusual in modern America, where social mobility isn’t actually as powerful as political rhetoric might suggest. But he went on to serve in a fairly predictable way, according to new research on how class backgrounds affect legislators’ voting behavior: Democrats with humble upbringings tend to favor policies that help lift people out of poverty, like access to health care, welfare benefits, higher minimum wages and more funding for education.

Republicans, by contrast, don’t break down at all by their financial conditions in childhood — perhaps because those who came from poverty tend to credit their rise to personal initiative, rather than social programs. That suggests that while the ability of those who came from humble backgrounds to get elected to Congress matters for the Democratic policy platform, it might not have much impact on the issues the GOP decides to emphasize.

“Don’t ask me to explain Republicans,” Miller says.

During his decade in Congress, Miller became one of the House’s most vocal advocates of financial reform and a “darling of progressive activists," working to strengthen the Dodd-Frank law and fighting for greater relief for homeowners hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. After five terms of that, the conservative North Carolina House essentially redistricted him out of a seat. Miller says his priorities in office had a lot to do with his understanding of what life is like on the bottom of the income ladder.

“You know people who are struggling, because they’re your relatives, people you knew in high school. And that kind of changes your perspective,” Miller says. "I know that I’m less inclined to think that the U.S. is meritocratic, unless you think it is very meritorious to have rich parents."

The paper, which builds on previous work by Duke University's Nicholas Carnes, uses data on the professional and parental backgrounds of lawmakers serving in Congress between 1999 and 2008. Author Jacob Grumbach of the University of California-Berkeley found that Democrats born into wealth vote more conservatively, even accounting for race and gender. And it’s even more true when purely pocketbook issues — as measured by scorecards issued by the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce — are taken into account.

For Miller, that resonates. Until recently, Democrats marketed their progressive cred more through their positions on gay rights or the war in Iraq, regardless of their votes on bank regulation or labor protections.

“I guess a lot of the 'wine track' progressives are liberal on social issues, war and peace issues, and don’t so much care about economic issues,” Miller says. "It’s become fashionable to talk about income inequality, but for a generation it hasn’t been what defined their economic message.” Over the course of that generation, some of the policies that allowed Miller to advance — like very low tuition at the University of North Carolina — have fallen by the wayside.

Of course, another standard-bearer of economic populism — Elizabeth Warren — also rose from modest means to a position of power. Miller, who worked closely with Warren to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, thinks it’s time to talk to voters about their balance sheets, rather than hot-button issues like abortion or gun control.

“That’s been one of my frustrations with the Democratic party, that there’s not been a whole lot of sympathy for Archie Bunker — for the working class, socially conservative white guy,” Miller says. "A demographic I sometimes refer to as my family.”