Sunday, 16 Dec 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t rich. There’s no reason to talk about it.

Your bank account shouldn’t be a requirement for participating in democracy.

There’s something about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

First, an Eddie Scarry tweet about how her clothing and bag “don’t look like a girl who struggles” got ratioed like few before it. Then a CNBC tweet meditating on the less than $7,000 in her savings account received similar backlash.

The 29-year-old democratic socialist and former bartender has been elected to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District — and she is perhaps the highest-profile incoming member of the next Congress. As such, almost everything about her is constantly under scrutiny, from her Instagram habits to her policy positions.

The average member of Congress has something like five times the net worth of the typical American household, so instead of talking about how little Ocasio-Cortez has in her bank account, it might be a good time to talk about how much her peers in Congress have in theirs.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t rich. That was the whole point of her campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez has made no secret that she’s a member of the working class and isn’t exactly dripping in money — that’s what she ran on.

“I think we need to be a party that is first and foremost accountable to working-class people again, and to marginalized people,” she told the Progressive in September. “I don’t want that to be something that we just talk about, but something that we are about. I want us to be that party again. I want us to be the party that wired, and electrified, literally, the nation. I want us to be the party that said it would go to the moon, and did. Because it’s not over. We did that. And now we have a lot more to do.”

After Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley in the primary in June and won the general election in November, she said in an interview with the New York Times that she was worried about paying for an apartment in Washington, DC, before her $174,000 annual congressional salary kicks in.

Fox News subsequently pointed out that, according to public records, she had at least $15,000 in her savings, apparently making the case that the amount should be sufficient to foot the bill for a DC apartment, where the median rent is $2,700 per month.

This was the inspiration for the CNBC follow-up last week, which reported that, according to her communications director, Ocasio-Cortez now has less than $7,000 in savings. She made about $26,600 in 2018, and she’s paying off somewhere between $15,000 and $50,000 on her student loan debt.

The CNBC story then lays out how Ocasio-Cortez “stacks up to other millennials”: The median millennial has just $2,430 in savings. So in fact, Ocasio-Cortez is above the median compared to her generational peers.

Ocasio-Cortez is good at responding to chatter about her clothing and financial situation. Yet the attacks keep coming.

The attention to the incoming Congress member’s money goes beyond her bank account — it’s on her wardrobe, too.

In September, conservative activist Charlie Kirk tweeted that an outfit Ocasio-Cortez wore in a photo shoot was expensive. She responded by pointing out that you don’t get to keep the clothes, and that she’s a good dresser.

When Scarry tweeted out a now-deleted picture taken of Ocasio-Cortez, she responded by saying that they can’t “help” but obsess about her because “women like me aren’t supposed to run for office — or win.”

On Tuesday, she weighed in again.

“The actual fear driving the attacks on my clothes, my checking account, my rent, isn’t that these folks are scared that I should represent people in Congress,” she tweeted. “It’s fear that they’ve allowed their riches, their privileges, + their bias to put them at a point where they can’t.”

Vox’s Gaby Del Valle recently delved into what’s going on with conservatives’ obsession with Ocasio-Cortez’s clothes and money:

The message implied here is twofold: Not only is Ocasio-Cortez lying about her working-class background, but she’s living large while espousing democratic socialist policies. By painting Ocasio-Cortez as a hypocrite, Scarry and other critics are suggesting that when she talks about wealth redistribution, she’s really talking about enriching herself with other people’s money.

She added that the underlying message “is that if working people own anything beyond the bare minimum, then they’re not really struggling.”

A lot of Congress members are very rich

Ocasio-Cortez is the exception to the rule when it comes to the typical congressional profile: She’s a young woman, she’s Latina, and she comes from a pretty average background.

That’s not the case for most members of Congress. And yet, it’s her lack of wealth that we’re focusing on instead of a much bigger problem in US politics: the fact that it’s often prohibitively expensive for people to run for office, and so wealthy Americans are more likely to hold the reins in government.

Tanzania Vega, host of WNYC’s The Takeaway, in a series of tweets on Monday laid out just how well-off the average member of Congress is. The median net worth of all members of Congress was $511,000 in 2018, five times the median net worth of an American household of $97,300 in 2016, according to the Federal Reserve. The cumulative wealth of all current members of Congress was at least $2.43 billion.

Until more members of Congress have the perspective of Ocasio-Cortez, it’s likely our policies will continue to reflect the interests of the wealthy.