If there’s been one constant over the tumultuous last few years, it’s voters’ dissatisfaction with the U.S. economy.
This is a singular concern for Republicans and Democrats alike, particularly as the White House continues to pitch “Bidenomics” as a success while polls show former President Donald Trump beating President Joe Biden on economic confidence.
Yet reading about economic pain and perusing the data beneath it is one thing. Hearing about it firsthand from constituents is something else entirely. And that’s something many lawmakers spend a fair amount of time doing when they manage to get away from the Capitol.
Here’s a rundown of what lawmakers say they’re hearing from constituents about the state of the economy and what needs to be done to fix it.
Core costs grinding down budgets: A defining feature of the current inflationary picture is that while the price increases for things like furniture, energy and used cars have slowed, fundamental expenses including childcare and housing remain a pain point.
“Housing and childcare are probably the two biggest things that I’m hearing about. And then health care,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told us. “The thing that’s hard about this is, obviously, housing and childcare were the things that were in Build Back Better that got dropped.”
Housing costs — particularly the price of mortgages — have had a dampening effect on a key element of the American dream: social mobility.
“What I hear about is the people who want to buy a slightly bigger house but can’t afford it, because the house that they live in, their interest rate is 2.5%, and the next house is going to be 6%,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said.
Student loans are back: It’s been a long time coming, but millions of borrowers with federal student loans have seen their payments resume since October. Several lawmakers told us that the potential for $200-$300 monthly expenses was weighing on their voters.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said his office had heard from many “young people” with both questions and concerns about student debt payments. Rounds on what his constituents are saying: “‘I can’t afford what I’m doing right now, and now I’m gonna have to start paying these back again? My income is not keeping up with my expenses.’ And we get it.”
When we asked Rep. Nikema Williams about student loans, the Georgia Democrat told us we’d just missed her commiserating with one of her own staffers whose loans had resumed.
“Think about the last time people with federal student loans made payments. It’s been a while. People have readjusted their budgets,” Williams said. “Adding something to your budget when your salary probably has not risen to keep up is going to have a huge impact.”
But concerns about student loans aren’t shared evenly among members’ districts. Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) said that “at the end of the day, my district — like a lot of the rest of the country, a majority of Americans — didn’t go to college.” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said he had the opposite situation: “My district is older and more affluent, so I probably hear about it less than some.”
The future is… something: More than one lawmaker told us their constituents are first and foremost preoccupied with what the future holds. And it’s a huge source of anxiety.
This includes laments about the trajectory of climate change among younger voters and existential concerns about the difficulties of retirement among older Americans.
“While unemployment is very low, and while we created a whole lot of jobs and while we’re making very good investments and rebuilding our manufacturing, the reality is that 60% of workers in America are living paycheck to paycheck,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said. “Younger people will probably have a lower standard of living than their parents.”
New technologies including generative artificial intelligence are also making it harder for the younger generation to imagine the future of work and where they’ll fit into it, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) said.
“Young kids are very disturbed about AI when they think through their careers,” Foster said. “They’re thinking downstream, and they’re more connected with ChatGPT, thinking through the implications. I think that’s one of the undercurrents, particularly for young people — just the fact that the world seems so unstable.”
— Brendan Pedersen