The United States Congress is Not as Diverse as the Rest of the Country Overall

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

With about one in five voting members of Congress being racial or ethnic minorities, the 116th Congress is more diverse today than it has been in the entire history of the United States. There has been an upward trend recently with each of the last four Congresses breaking the record set by the one before in racial and ethnic diversity.

Compared to the 79th Congress in 1945 which consisted of only 0.69% of nonwhite members, the current Congress is significantly more diverse. However, despite this diversification, the demographics of Congress are still not proportionate to the rest of the country. For example, the 22% of nonwhite members in the current Congress do not amount to the 39% of nonwhite people in the nation.

Growth of racial and ethnic minorities in Congress (Pew Research Center)

The demographics for certain non-white groups in the House already reflect the demographics of the U.S. population. For example, 12% of House members are Black and 1% are Native American, which are somewhat equal to the 13.4% of Black people and 1.3% of Native Americans in the general population. However, this is not the case for other non-white groups.

The 9% of Hispanics in the House are not reflective of the 18% of Hispanics in the total population. Additionally, the share of Asians in the country (6%) is double the amount in the House (3%). The increase in the 116th Congress’s nonwhite representation largely came from the Democratic Party. Out of the 22 nonwhite representatives newly elected, only one was RepublicanーRep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH).

On the other hand, the Senate had no new non-white members from the previous 115th Congress making the Senate still nowhere close to the U.S. population demographically. The Senate’s racial and ethnic makeup is 3% Black, 4% Hispanic, 3% Asian American including Indian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and 0% Native American. Although these numbers are the highest they’ve ever been in the history of Congress, they do not adequately represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the country as a whole. When compared to the rest of the country, Congress is still significantly disproportionately white. Not including Hispanics, Congress is 78% white while the U.S. is 61% white. The gap between these numbers has widened over time showing that the U.S. population is becoming less white faster than Congress, according to Pew Research Center.

Percent of white members in Congress compared to overall U.S. population over time (Pew Research Center)

The same upward trend is also observed in gender diversity. A record 125 women are in the 116th Congress, with 102 in the House and 25 in the Senate. However, the 24% of Congressional voting power held by women is still considerably far from the 50.8% of the U.S. population that are female.

It was over a century ago, in 1916, when the first woman, Jeanette Rankin (R-MT), was elected to Congress. However, the number of women in Congress only grew to a substantial amount in the last few decades. The Senate did not include more than three women until 1991, in the 102nd Congress. Additionally, 63% of the 325 women elected to the House since Rankin were elected after 1991.

Percent of women members in each house of Congress over time (Pew Research Center).

Furthermore, Congress has become more religiously diverse as well. The first two Muslim women were elected, increasing the number of non-Christians in Congress to 63. The 34 Jewish members of Congress account for most of the 63, as well as the three Muslims, three Hindus, two Bhuddists, two Unitarian Universalists, one religiously unaffiliated member, and 18 who declined to specify their religious affiliation. However, none of those religions represented in Congress are equal to its representation in the entire country. Furthermore, the number of Christians has decreased to 471 from the previous Congress’s 485 making it the lowest it has ever been. Despite the decrease, Christians are still overrepresented in Congress with 88% of Congress members being Christian compared to the 71% across the entire country.

In contrast, religiously unaffiliated people are barely represented in Congress. While “23% say they are atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’” only one member, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), identifies as religiously unaffiliated making the proportion of religious “nones” in Congress .02%. Therefore, despite the rise in diversity, the current Congress is not as religiously diverse as the U.S.

Comparison of the share of people affiliated with each religion in Congress versus the Country (Pew Research Center)

Furthermore, the number of openly LGBTQ+ Congress members is at its highest. The 10 openly LGBTQ+ members, 8 in the House and 2 in the Senate, account for 2.2% of Congress. However, compared to the about 4.5% of the U.S., LGBTQ+ members are underrepresented in Congress.

Nonetheless, the importance of the diversity of Congress is a debated topic. A Congress member’s background and past experiences influence their beliefs and policies. This is why people argue that diversity is extremely important because a government that better represents their country’s demographic structure will more accurately represent the interests of all the individuals within the country. However, people take issue with that statement because candidates should be voted for strictly based on their policies and not their race, ethnicity, gender, sexulity, etc. Nonetheless, with the next election coming soon, the 117th Congress could surpass the current Congress as the most diverse in history if it follows the long-running upward trajectory of diversity in the government.

Compared to the 79th Congress in 1945 which consisted of only 0.69% of nonwhite members, the current Congress is significantly more diverse. However, despite this diversification, the demographics of Congress are still not proportionate to the rest of the country. For example, the 22% of nonwhite members in the current Congress do not amount to the 39% of nonwhite people in the nation.

The demographics for certain non-white groups in the House already reflect the demographics of the U.S. population. For example, 12% of House members are Black and 1% are Native American, which are somewhat equal to the 13.4% of Black people and 1.3% of Native Americans in the general population. However, this is not the case for other non-white groups.

The 9% of Hispanics in the House are not reflective of the 18% of Hispanics in the total population. Additionally, the share of Asians in the country (6%) is double the amount in the House (3%). The increase in the 116th Congress’s nonwhite representation largely came from the Democratic Party. Out of the 22 nonwhite representatives newly elected, only one was RepublicanーRep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH).

On the other hand, the Senate had no new non-white members from the previous 115th Congress making the Senate still nowhere close to the U.S. population demographically. The Senate’s racial and ethnic makeup is 3% Black, 4% Hispanic, 3% Asian American including Indian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and 0% Native American. Although these numbers are the highest they’ve ever been in the history of Congress, they do not adequately represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the country as a whole. When compared to the rest of the country, Congress is still significantly disproportionately white. Not including Hispanics, Congress is 78% white while the U.S. is 61% white. The gap between these numbers has widened over time showing that the U.S. population is becoming less white faster than Congress, according to Pew Research Center.

Percent of white members in Congress compared to overall U.S. population over time (Pew Research Center)

The same upward trend is also observed in gender diversity. A record 125 women are in the 116th Congress, with 102 in the House and 25 in the Senate. However, the 24% of Congressional voting power held by women is still considerably far from the 50.8% of the U.S. population that are female.

It was over a century ago, in 1916, when the first woman, Jeanette Rankin (R-MT), was elected to Congress. However, the number of women in Congress only grew to a substantial amount in the last few decades. The Senate did not include more than three women until 1991, in the 102nd Congress. Additionally, 63% of the 325 women elected to the House since Rankin were elected after 1991.

Furthermore, Congress has become more religiously diverse as well. The first two Muslim women were elected, increasing the number of non-Christians in Congress to 63. The 34 Jewish members of Congress account for most of the 63, as well as the three Muslims, three Hindus, two Bhuddists, two Unitarian Universalists, one religiously unaffiliated member, and 18 who declined to specify their religious affiliation. However, none of those religions represented in Congress are equal to its representation in the entire country. Furthermore, the number of Christians has decreased to 471 from the previous Congress’s 485 making it the lowest it has ever been. Despite the decrease, Christians are still overrepresented in Congress with 88% of Congress members being Christian compared to the 71% across the entire country.

In contrast, religiously unaffiliated people are barely represented in Congress. While “23% say they are atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’” only one member, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), identifies as religiously unaffiliated making the proportion of religious “nones” in Congress .02%. Therefore, despite the rise in diversity, the current Congress is not as religiously diverse as the U.S.

Furthermore, the number of openly LGBTQ+ Congress members is at its highest. The 10 openly LGBTQ+ members, 8 in the House and 2 in the Senate, account for 2.2% of Congress. However, compared to the about 4.5% of the U.S., LGBTQ+ members are underrepresented in Congress.

Nonetheless, the importance of the diversity of Congress is a debated topic. A Congress member’s background and past experiences influence their beliefs and policies. This is why people argue that diversity is extremely important because a government that better represents their country’s demographic structure will more accurately represent the interests of all the individuals within the country. However, people take issue with that statement because candidates should be voted for strictly based on their policies and not their race, ethnicity, gender, sexulity, etc. Nonetheless, with the next election coming soon, the 117th Congress could surpass the current Congress as the most diverse in history if it follows the long-running upward trajectory of diversity in the government.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you think that it is important that the U.S. Congress has similar demographics to the country overall?

“It’s nice to have a Congress that’s demographically similar to that of the country as a whole. It’s not absolutely essential – intelligence and competence are more valuable traits when it comes to Congress – but diversity and representation in Congress are nonetheless ideal.” Justin Wang, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I think it should because there’s been a lot of injustices and protests concerning both race/religion and sexuality in the U.S. throughout history calling for reform. And I feel as though all this reform has been slowed by having a mainly straight white male Congress. If there was more representation for people of color and different sexual preferences, I feel like Congress would be less biased and more fair to these groups.” Jacob Johnson, 16, Rising Junior at Northwest High School, Germantown, MD
“I think that it doesn’t matter that much. It’s just that obviously the most qualified candidate should be elected regardless of race or their past, but as a trend ppl hold similar beliefs to that of their communities and vote accordingly. A diverse Congress would be ideal but we can’t expect everybody to vote for people just for the purpose of making Congress more diverse because that wouldn’t be a democracy where everybody has the freedom to vote for whoever they want.” Mia Mikowski, 16, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD

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