When a caseworker in California Democrat Katie Porter’s House office answers the phone, the constituent on the other end of the line may speak one of a dozen languages.
Porter has had staff translate outreach and congressional materials into Mandarin, Farsi, Korean and Vietnamese, among others. She said her staff draws from the diverse community and speaks several languages, but that’s not always enough.
“My staff people, first and foremost, are people who are experts in government services; they are not trained for translation,” she said.
Over the past decade, Porter’s Irvine-area 45th District in Southern California grew to the largest by population in the state and was 45 percent non-Hispanic white in 2020, down from 55 percent in 2010. The district is more than one quarter Asian, which has shaped how Porter reaches out to her constituents. For example, she often contacts local community groups and ethnic churches in efforts to share more information about federal programs.
Results from the 2020 census show the country had less than 60 percent non-Hispanic white residents for the first time. The Census Bureau changed how it asks race and ethnicity questions, as well as its data processing behind the scenes, making it difficult to say how much the country diversified exactly since the 2010 count.
Still, the results show large growth in the Asian and Hispanic populations nationwide — the Hispanic population grew by almost 25 percent, while the Asian population increased by almost a third.
Asians made up California’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, increasing by 25 percent between 2010 and 2020. If the trend continues, more districts will look like Porter’s, with constituents speaking new languages and needing a different mix of federal programs.
Language access is just one part of the puzzle, as diverse communities tend to be younger and more likely to be immigrants and rent their homes rather than owning them. Porter has seen such changes among her own growing constituency, resulting in a shift in programs to emphasize, such as those providing emergency assistance for renters.
Relationships and outreach
In Georgia, former Republican Rep. Rob Woodall’s 7th District, in suburban Atlanta, grew to the largest in the state by 2020, at more than 850,000 people. Only one other seat, Republican Barry Loudermilk’s 11th District, due west and nearly twice as large geographically, had more than 800,000 people.
Woodall’s former district is also one of the most diverse in the state, with less than 40 percent non-Hispanic white residents. The Hispanic population makes up the largest minority group, at 20 percent, but the district also has the largest Asian population in the state at 16.9 percent.
To help meet population needs, Woodall had two caseworkers on immigration issues full-time, one on the business side to help with requests like employee work permits and the other for individuals needing help with green card applications or other visa requests. The district’s diversity has factored into a large growth of small businesses, which Woodall said meant more interaction with the Small Business Administration. It also involved more effort to encourage constituents to reach out to their elected officials.
“Depending on what culture they immigrated from, the concept of help from the government may not have existed or may have only come with money in hand as a bribe,” said Woodall, who retired ahead of the 2020 election. “From a service perspective, finding families that need help and don’t know how to ask for that help is the point.”
Still, Woodall acknowledged that lawmakers don’t always reach everyone in the district. He pointed to Democrat Stacey Abrams carrying the district during her unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial run.
“She found voters there I didn’t even know existed,” he said.
Woodall called reaching out and understanding diverse constituencies good policy, as well as good politics. He predicts much of the country may soon look like his district.
“If Republicans are going to be successful in the future, they are going to succeed in districts like Georgia’s 7th,” he said.
Woodall’s successor in Congress, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, flipped the seat in 2020 with 51 percent of the vote.
Woodall, along with Porter and another former member, Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley, said in-person outreach and relationships are key to getting constituents comfortable to seek their help.
Berkley, who represented the Las Vegas-area 1st District until 2013, has watched the district diversify over the years. In 2020, it was one of the most diverse in the country — 45 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, 13 percent Black and 8 percent Asian. Berkley said she regularly attended a variety of church services in her district to connect with the community.
“When I first ran for Congress, I started going to the Black churches on Sunday to get votes. I mean, it was as simple as that,” she said. “It just grew and expanded with time. … When you pray with people on an ongoing basis, you get to know them.”
At the staffer level
A diverse staff frequently facilitates that connection — whether through language skills or cultural knowledge. However, House staff has lagged behind the country’s diversity. According to a report last year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, less than 20 percent of House staffers come from minority communities.
A different study, from 2019, by the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion found that about 30 percent of staffers come from minority communities. The office’s director, Kemba Hendrix, told lawmakers at a May hearing that just hiring more diverse interns won’t fix the issue.
“It can’t just start at the bottom, thinking that an internship pipeline is going to increase the level of senior leaders who are going to be able to affect policy decisions and be able to grow and develop future leaders,” she told members of the House Modernization of Congress Committee.
The broader Legislative Branch spending bill, which passed the House in July and awaits Senate action, would include a 21 percent hike in appropriations for offices, as well as more translation services and increased funding for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The bill also includes a provision to allow recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, to work for the House.
The bill’s provisions would fulfill just some of the recommendations made by the Modernization Committee to improve Congress. Woodall, who served on the panel before his retirement, said he felt some of the proposals had merit, like more funding for paid internships.
“To get more diversity you have to provide more opportunity,” he said.
But Woodall wondered whether some provisions in the bill would go too far — he said it may be unfair for GOP Rep. Liz Cheney’s constituents in Wyoming to have their tax dollars go toward a centralized translation service they would rarely use.
At the same time, Porter said she has had problems getting federal agencies to translate materials into non-English languages. She has pushed for the Legislative Branch funding bill to include a translation service members can use. Even if staff can speak a constituent’s language, it may not be enough to help people navigate federal services.
“We need to have this available for every district across the country,” Porter said. “This is an area where we think Congress should be monitoring what we want to see from federal agencies.”
For instance, last year the SBA added translations for 17 languages in the Paycheck Protection Program, but only after more than a month following the program’s launch amid the pandemic.