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  • Megan Johanson

Who Can Afford to be a State Legislator?

Last year I came across a post on LinkedIn where someone pointed out that not everyone can be a state legislator because not everyone can live off of the salary, which varies by state. I was really intrigued by this because I had never heard anything about legislators’ salaries, so I decided to do some digging.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), only 10 states pay legislators “enough to allow them to make a living without having other sources of income.”

Deciphering the Data

Finding and understanding the legislators’ salaries was more complicated than I expected.

First, I pulled legislator salaries from this table of legislators’ compensations. Then, I used this table of session length to calculate annual salaries for states where the rates are only given by the day. Where there was variance between senators and representatives, or odd versus even years, I used the higher number in my calculation.

In addition, for the states that only provided rates by the day, the actual amount paid may differ from my calculations if the sessions are shorter than the state limit. For the sake of simplicity, I excluded per diems, mileage, and other benefits that vary by state to focus on the base salary.

Lastly, NCSL estimates that some state’s time commitments for legislators are roughly the same as a part-time job (57% of a full-time job, see Table 2 below). This is categorized as gold and includes 14 states (see Table 1 below). Another 26 states require the time equivalent of 74% of a full-time job and are categorized as gray. The last 10 states require a time commitment of approximately 84% of a full-time job. These states are categorized as green by the NCSL.

Table where the three categories of legislature are defined by average compensation and average time commitment relative to a full time job.

Table of the states grouped by legislative category type.

It is often the case that salaries are lower in states where the time requirement is lower, but the fact remains that the legislators are making very little in those states and would need either another part-time job or enough savings to cover living expenses.

Lastly, I wanted to bring in some context of what these salaries mean. I looked up the 2020 federal poverty guidelines for a single person household ($12,760) and for a 2-person household ($17,240). To support a family of four just above the poverty line, a person needs to make more than $26,200.

The Early Endeavor

There were a lot of pieces of data I wanted to include in my visual: salary by state, category of legislative time commitment, and the family of four poverty guideline. I started with a basic bar chart for simplicity and I think it would have worked fine if it weren’t for the fact that there are 50 bars. It’s impossible to see the whole chart on a screen at once, which is not ideal for a data visualization.

You can see the bar chart below and will notice that as you scroll down you lose the salary amounts labelled across the top. I also couldn’t fit the actual salary amounts for each state in the chart, so it is more of a high-level view.

Bar chart where state legislator salaries are presented. States with lower salaries are at the top and the bar colors reflect the legislative category.

Yikes, that's quite a scroll, right? By the time you are at the bottom you don't know what you are looking at.

I got stuck with this imperfect visual for a while and didn’t know how to proceed, until I saw the February Storytelling With Data challenge: Make a Map.

The Mighty Map

The challenge reminded me that I had a template for a tile grid map in Excel that I’ve never tried. The template was a detailed instructional guide and sample created by Ann Emery for the Great Graphs online course I took with her a couple of years ago. I highly recommend the course, by the way! The nice thing about a tile grid map is that it gives every state the same "visual weight." Which means, you can actually see the data for small states like Delaware and Rhode Island which might be lost in a more traditional map.

So, I found the template and started replacing her sample data with my own.

Here is the final result:

A tile grid map where each state is a colored square. The darker the square, the higher the salary.

I call this the Mighty Map because it packs a lot of information into a much smaller space. I think it looks sleek and works well to organize the data.

However, one downside is that the additional context of the poverty guidelines isn't embedded in the visualization. In addition, the groupings obscure the fact that one state pays their legislators nothing (New Mexico) and another pays just $100 (New Hampshire).

Who Is Left Out?

One final piece of context I would like to include is that the average amount of savings a person has varies largely by race/ethnicity. Specifically, the average white person in 2016 had enough savings to stay above the poverty threshold for a year if they make no (or a very small) salary. The average Black or Hispanic person did not.

Table of average savings amount by racial/ethnic group.

How many smart and talented leaders is this country missing out on because of these financial barriers?

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