OPINION: How today’s unpaid internships perpetuate inequality

An important barrier came down on Capitol Hill last month without much fanfare: unpaid congressional internships. Long seen as the door into Washington and the path toward forging a career there, these internships play a key role in limiting accessibility.

Nearly regarded as a rite of passage for older college students, internships offer students valuable experience and networking before they enter the job market. But, when it comes down to taking a summer job or an unpaid internship, the decision strongly depends on one’s socioeconomic status.

Pay Our Interns, the group that led the effort for paid internships, published a study in June 2017 that explored the wide-ranging impact of the “intern-to-staffer pipeline” and how the unpaid internships on Capitol Hill perpetuated a system that kept economically disadvantaged students out of Washington.

The issue of unpaid internships lacks the partisanship surrounding many other issues in Washington today, which may offer a crucial opening for action.

In fact, Democratic senators proved to be significantly less likely than Republicans to pay their interns, with 20 percent fewer doing so. Though, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced this past spring that they would pay interns and immediately after, they noted that “the share of people of color in the program leapt from 18 percent to 42 percent.”

With the expenses of an internship averaging out to $6,000, in addition to the lost income from a paid summer job, this opportunity is inherently open only to those able to take this financial loss.

Furthermore, the exclusivity of the internship market breeds the same in the job market, as students with internship experience have a 51.7 percent higher chance of receiving a job offer by graduation.

New York Times writer Darren Walker brings up the importance of the “people you know,” highlighting how “contacts and money matter more than talent” and that “access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.”

At no fault of their own, it can be very difficult for the first generation immigrant or the rural, economically disadvantaged student to know the “right people.” Having to already face this barrier in the internship market, these students would be far better competitors if they could actually afford to take the internships for which they are qualified.  

While the prevalence of unpaid internships has been steadily declining over the past decade, that trend could be at risk following a January 2018 decision by the Department of Labor to loosen the requirements surrounding unpaid internships.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that now as long as “the intern is determined to be the primary beneficiary of the internship experience, he or she may be unpaid.”

As college students, we historically have had some of the lowest voter participation rates of all demographics. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 13 percent of students aged 18-24 cast their vote. As such, we risk being a forgotten demographic.

Politicians have little incentive to support the causes of a demographic group that has such a statistically small chance of influencing their future in office. Just one year after the group Pay Our Interns began pressuring Congress to fund internships, they succeeded.

We need to follow their example and exhibit this same pressure to bring about broader support for paid internships in both the public and private sectors.

Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an intended International Relations major from Lido Beach, NY. He has yet to be convinced West Coast beaches are better.

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