Barriers to access in politics for public servants

The Salt Lake City Council is considering increasing their own salaries. And unlike a lot of instances when people in power give themselves raises, it’s a good thing. Currently, councilmembers are paid $26,291 per year. That’s not much for a part-time job, and certainly not much for a part-time job as demanding as serving on the city council.

This low pay is largely ascribed as a result of the political awkwardness of raising one’s own pay. It also speaks to Utah’s expectations for public servants to be above the fray of money woes: true service isn’t about the compensation.

It’s a noble, laudable attitude. The problem is, when public servants are expected to work for subpar pay, it limits the pool of public servants to those who are already independently wealthy, or have a job both lucrative and flexible enough to accommodate for their public service. There’s a reason that so many of Utah’s elected officials are lawyers or real estate developers, compared to, say, grocery clerks or bus drivers. It’s because for most people, combining public service with a day job doesn’t result in a living wage. (For reference, a living wage in Utah is about $48,000 a year.)

Last year, the Utah Legislature turned down a recommendation from an independent committee to increase pay–mostly, just adjusting for inflation since 2013, the last time that pay was raised. Utah ranks 35th in the nation for legislator pay with an average of $16,785 a year. Most legislators would attest that the work of planning bills and engaging with constituents goes far beyond the 60 designated legislative days each year.

Of course, there are many barriers to legislative office besides the salary itself. The timing of the general session makes legislative service infeasible to people who can’t get the time off work. A 45-day span from January into March is not a gap that managers can easily accommodate in scheduling. The winter months can also pose a particular challenge to educators: while the timing benefits candidates with school-age children, teachers can’t leave halfway through the school year to represent their communities.

Then there are the softer barriers to office: a lack of connections who could offer support or donate to a political campaign, a lack of confidence or experience, and biases in the community based on racism, sexism, or both. These barriers to office can’t be overcome by simply making public service more financially viable. But we will never achieve diversity in office without making these kinds of structural improvements.

The Utah Legislature is not a diverse body–not in terms of age, race, gender, religion, ability, profession, orientation, ideology, or probably any other metric you could use. (In fact, the median age of the Utah Legislature is 59, nearly double the median age of the state as a whole.) It matters because the more homogenous a group is, the greater its blind spots. And it matters because those most likely to be affected by legislative whims are those with the least access to political power. These individuals shouldn’t have a seat at the table as “diversity for diversity’s sake.” They need to be involved because their life experiences have given them knowledge most of our elected officials lack. Their perspectives are not only valuable, but essential to creating responsible public policy.  

Until women and men can engage in public service as a viable part-time job–not just as a noblesse oblige or fulfilling way to spend retirement–we will not have a government that reflects the lived experiences of those likely to be affected most by its policies.

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