Note: This is a summary of work by 2014 high school interns Eleanor Bodington and Emma York, who studied the representativeness of elected officials in Fall River and New Bedford. A second post contains their New Bedford-specific findings.
By Eleanor Bodington (Durfee High School Class of 2015) and Emma York (New Bedford High School Class of 2015), edited for length by Urban Initiative staff
We compared the attributes of gender, age, race/ethnicity, primary language, educational attainment, annual income, and geographic location for elected officials in New Bedford and Fall River and their respective constituents. We employed the surveying techniques of the U.S. Census to gather information regarding the school committee, city council, and mayor of each metropolis.
We define representativeness as the comparability of people in positions of power’s measured attributes and their constituent’s measured attributes.
Why does representativeness matter?
We elect local officials to make decisions for the betterment of the local populace. Yet, if a segment of the population is over or under represented in a city’s elected officials, their consideration in decision-making may be similarly over or under represented, threatening the democratic ideal of equality. Elected officials are more likely to connect to the concerns of constituents with similar attributes. For instance, a City Councilor who lives in a flood-prone precinct is more likely to identify and address a constituent who is concerned that the city is not providing adequate flood relief in her area, than a City Councilor who lives in a higher, less flood-prone precinct. Different councilors possess different attributes and thus appeal to different constituents. Consequently, the greater diversity our elected officials possess, the better we may accommodate the interests of all constituents.
How did we measure representativeness?
We measured representativeness by comparing the gender, age, race/ethnicity, primary language, educational attainment, annual income, and geographic location by ward and precinct of the elected officials of New Bedford and Fall River with that of their constituents. We gathered information regarding constituents through census data and regarding elected officials through a survey that was sent to City Councillors and members of the School Committee in each city.
The accuracy of our assessment was hindered by non-response bias. Despite contacting 18 elected officials from New Bedford and 16 elected officials from Fall River, only 11 and 7 respectively responded, providing an incomplete image of the attributes of the elected political body as a whole.
Findings – Fall River
Race/ethnicity. The entirety of Fall River’s elected officials identify as white, underrepresenting the Hispanic, Asian, and African American segments of the city’s population.
Gender. The disparity in gender between constituents and representatives was most evident, with a local populace with slightly more females than males, but a population of elected officials a whopping 86% male and only 14% female.
Age. Senior citizens and youth are underrepresented in Fall River’s elected officials.
Primary language. All of Fall River’s elected officials primarily speak English, under-representing the area’s large population speaking other Indo-European languages.
Educational attainment. As expected, Fall River’s elected officials are immensely further educated than the general populace, with 71% holding a graduate degree compared to less than 5 percent of the citizenry.
Annual income. Fall River’s elected officials are wealthier than their constituents, with all officials falling within a $50,000 and $100,000 annual income. No elected officials fell into the less than $50,000 bracket, despite the fact that the majority of Fall River’s citizenry make less than $50,000.