Working-class people rarely have a seat ‘at the legislative table’ in state capitols

Robbie Sequeira | Stateline.org (TNS)

In her first few months as a Minnesota state legislator in 2021, state Rep. Kaela Berg often wondered: “What the hell am I doing here?”

A single mother and flight attendant without a college degree or prior political experience, Berg now had a seat at the legislative table, shaping policy decisions in her home state.

As she ran against a former two-term Republican representative — a commercial real estate agent — she also was struggling for housing and living in a friend’s basement.

“I’m living in [her] basement, running for office, and the pandemic hits,” said Berg. “I went from three jobs to one. … I found that while I can pay my bills, I can’t qualify for a new apartment because you have to show two or three times the rent and I can’t do that.”

While it was gratifying to receive support from working families in her district, her transition to state policymaker felt overwhelming.

“I had the worst case of impostor syndrome,” Berg, a member of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said in an interview. “I’m thinking, ‘Who do I think I am? I’m a working flight attendant. I don’t have a college degree. Why did I let somebody talk me into this?’”

Minnesota state Rep. Kaela Berg. Berg, a single mother and flight attendant without a college degree, is one of the few state lawmakers across the nation who qualify as “working class,” according to recent research. (Minnesota House of Representatives/TNS) 

Berg is a rarity in politics: a working-class state legislator.

Just 116 of the nearly 7,400 state legislators in the United States come from working-class backgrounds, according to a biennial study conducted by Nicholas Carnes and Eric Hansen, political scientists at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago, respectively.

The researchers define legislators as “working class” if they currently or last worked in manual labor, service industry, clerical or labor union jobs. They found that 1.6% of state lawmakers meet that definition, compared with 50% of U.S. workers. Only about 2% of Democrats and 1% of Republicans qualified as working class.

Ten states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia — have no working-class state lawmakers.

The dearth of working-class legislators raises concerns that economic challenges such as wage stagnation and the rising cost of living will get short shrift in state capitols.

Working-class politicians are more likely to have personally experienced economic hardship, so they are more interested in policies to mitigate it, Carnes said. And they often propose solutions that differ from those put forward by colleagues who aren’t working class, even if it means diverging from party doctrine.

“State legislatures make consequential decisions, and if you have an entire economic class of people that are not in the room when policy decisions are being made, that’s going to tilt the kind of problems politicians pay attention to,” said Carnes. “It also dictates the kinds of solutions they consider against the interests of whoever’s out of the room.”

Working-class representation in state legislatures has always been low, he noted, but the most recent count is even lower than it was two years ago, when the percentage was about 1.8%.

The state legislature with the highest percentage of working-class lawmakers is Alaska, with 5% — that’s three of 60 lawmakers. Maine has the highest total number of working-class legislators, eight of 151 legislators, with a transportation worker and a bartender among the ranks.

Nate Roberts is a longtime electrician who won a seat in the Idaho legislature. The Democrat is among the small number of working-class lawmakers around the country. (Idaho Legislature/TNS)
Nate Roberts is a longtime electrician who won a seat in the Idaho legislature. The Democrat is among the small number of working-class lawmakers around the country. (Idaho Legislature/TNS) 

Working-class issues

After a 32-year career as an electrician, Democratic state Rep. Nate Roberts was part of a new wave of first-time Idaho lawmakers entering office in 2023.

Roberts knew that it wasn’t just his relative political inexperience that separated him from the rest of his colleagues.

He also was one of the only state lawmakers who had worked a union job. And during his first few weeks in office, he was shocked by how rarely issues such as wage theft, low pay and housing affordability had been talked about in committee meetings.

“That’s when I realized that the only person that’s going to advocate for working-class people is a working-class person,” he told Stateline. “When I moved from state to state working different jobs, I realized how differently states were influenced when it came to policies for working people.”

Roberts learned the power of unions as a journeyman — and fighting to increase worker protections has become his life, he said.

Idaho is one of 26 so-called right-to-work states, where no person can be forced, as a condition of employment, to join a union. Such laws limit unions’ bargaining power.

Roberts would like Idaho to follow the lead of Michigan, which in 2023 became the first state in decades to repeal a right-to-work law. That is unlikely in Idaho, given the state’s conservative political orientation. But Roberts also is pushing to update Idaho’s child labor laws, which were enacted in 1907 and have been superseded by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Roberts said his experience as a laborer in his younger years has emboldened him to speak out against legislation such as a Senate bill that would repeal limits on the number of hours and how late in the day a child under the age of 16 can work.

“I’m still shocked when I get pushback for going against these bills, particularly ones that I feel regress our child labor laws,” said Roberts. “I’ve experienced it. We need to not only protect our kids, but we also need to protect our workers.”