Social Class and Representation in American Cities

TitleSocial Class and Representation in American Cities
Publication TypeUnpublished
AuthorsKirkland P

Despite advances in descriptive representation, the wealth gap between U.S. elected officials and their constituents continues to grow. I investigate whether and how the overrepresentation of the affluent shapes public policy in American cities. In recent years, political scientists’ renewed attention to social class and inequality has focused primarily on national politics, finding that the underrepresentation of the working class leads to more conservative policies. In light of considerable evidence supporting a link between descriptive and substantive representation, questions about social class and inequality seem especially pressing at the local level for two key reasons. First, the public depends on municipal government for essential services that affect their health and safety. Second, poor and working-class residents likely have fewer resources to “vote with their feet” by leaving cities with subpar services or regressive taxes, fees, and fines. Drawing on an original dataset that includes gender, race, occupational background, and political experience for more than 3,000 mayoral candidates from 250 cities over 60 years, I provide a comprehensive account of who runs for office and who serves in city government. Overall, these data indicate that like politicians at higher levels of government, mayors tend to be white and male with prior political experience and white-collar careers. I combine this extensive dataset with municipal public finance data to investigate the effect of the underrepresentation of the working class on local fiscal policy.