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 Fall River-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 – New Bedford
Race/ethnicity. New Bedford’s elected officials were surprisingly diverse compared to their constituents, with the glaring exception of the Hispanic population.
Gender. Similar to Fall River, New Bedford’s elected officials significantly under-represent the female population.
Age. New Bedford’s elected officials are older than the general citizenry with 36 percent ages 65 or older (similar to Fall River). Although youth are underrepresented, a non-voting student representative sits on the School Committee, providing some insight into the concerns of this population for older voting members.
Primary language. Similar to Fall River, New Bedford’s elected officials all primarily speak English, underrepresenting the Spanish and Indo-European speaking populations, namely Portuguese and Cape Verdean. Racial and linguistic representation is especially crucial currently because of the large influx of English Language Learners into New Bedford’s Public Schools.
Educational attainment. As expected, New Bedford’s elected officials, like those of Fall River, are better educated than the general populace, with all of New Bedford’s elected officials holding a collegiate degree.
Income. New Bedford’s elected officials, although well representing the middle class, do not reflect proportionately the low-income residents of New Bedford.