- In March, Sens. Cory Booker and Tim Scott introduced a bipartisan bill that would create a paid internship program at the US Department of State.
- Unpaid internships limit the pool of applicants who can afford to gain this valuable experience.
- Creating paid government internship programs will increase socioeconomic diversity in American leadership.
- Amanda Silberling is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Currently, there is no legislation mandating that government interns receive pay. But there should be. Paying federal interns a fair wage is not only the right thing to do, but it could also diversify the halls of government.
While Congress recently started paying interns, the caps on pay are still low compared to the cost of living in the nation’s capital, preventing many students from applying.Last summer, Rep. Tony Cárdenas pointed out that there are 1,110 senior staff positions on Capitol Hill, but only 152 people in those positions are Black, indigineous, people of color (BIPOC). This is a systemic problem that starts when our government limits who can afford to intern on the Hill.
And the issue isn’t just limited to Congress, many other parts of the government are lacking when it comes to intern pay. In March, Sens. Cory Booker and Tim Scott introduced the Department of State Student Internship Program Act, a bipartisan bill that would pay State Department interns a minimum wage. Students would also be provided housing and money for travel if they don’t live within 50 miles of their workplace. This is incredibly promising, yet long overdue.
In a press release to introduce the legislation, Sen. Booker’s office wrote that “for years, the State Department has struggled to recruit people of color.” A primary goal for this paid internship program is to make government hiring more equitable, and that starts from the most junior positions.
Barrier of entry
“At intern mixers, it was overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly people who went to DC schools,” remembers Chris Bohórquez, who was an unpaid intern for Rep. Bill Pascrell in 2015. “It was the same kind of experience that I had [as a student at George Washington University], that it was traditionally white, traditionally affluent, and I was very much in the minority of every environment I was in.”
An internship in government is the first step toward a career in public service. While congressional internships offer stipends capped at $1,800 a month, other internships in the federal government only offer college credit. Still, a recent report by Pay Our Interns found that the average total stipend per intern was $1,986.75 in the Senate and $1,612.53 in the House, which isn’t a living wage for multiple months of work. Plus, even though more congressional interns are receiving pay, over 76% of those interns are white, revealing that congressional internship classes are still lacking in diversity. Offering hourly wages, housing, and targeted outreach to underrepresented students could help change that.
Paid or unpaid, the low amounts of support make internships impossible for many students – especially those without familial wealth, who need to earn a reliable paycheck to afford rent, food, and tuition.
A 2018 study from Georgetown University found that eight out of 10 students now work a job while they’re in college. But low-income students are more likely to work paid jobs in retail or customer service, rather than unpaid internships like those offered in DC. By graduation, students who lack industry-specific skills they would’ve gained in an unpaid internship are less competitive applicants for entry-level government jobs.
After paying for housing, food, and transportation, internships can cost interns about $6,000. When employers offer college credit in exchange for their unpaid interns’ service, it can actually worsen the financial strain of working for free. After all, tuition is expensive, and those extra credits cost money. But as the job market becomes more and more competitive, internships are essential to getting a foot in the door, especially in politics.
To afford his unpaid internship, Bohórquez saved money from his work-study job. Then, he arranged all of his classes to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that he could intern from 9 to 5 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
“That was the culture and expectation, that in order to get a good job out of college, you had to bust your butt working unpaid internships,” said Bohórquez. “As a first-generation student, I assumed this was normal.”
Now, Bohórquez runs the paid internship program at Invariant, a public affairs firm in DC.
All students deserve compensation for their labor, yet in government, the lack of legislation to guarantee interns’ pay is particularly disturbing. In order for our government to adequately serve the needs of the American people, we need diverse representation in positions of power. The Department of State Student Internship Program Act would be an invaluable start toward leveling the economic playing field, but we need to extend the precedent for paying interns to all government offices.
In 2018, the nonprofit Pay Our Interns worked with bipartisan legislators to secure $13.8 million in funding for interns in the Senate and the House. Despite these massive steps forward, many internships remain unpaid. Pay Our Interns advised Sens. Booker and Scott on their bill, which is a companion to legislation that Representative Joaquin Castro introduced in the House.
Carlos Mark Vera, the Executive Director of Pay Our Interns, says that per the State Department bill, agencies will be required to do intentional outreach to minority-serving institutions and report who their internship programs served.
“Because of COVID-19, this is more timely and necessary than ever,” Vera says. “Last year, summer jobs and internships were wiped away. We’re losing a whole generation.”
One of the most common arguments against creating paid internship programs is that government budgets are already stretched too thin. When hundreds of qualified applicants apply for existing unpaid roles, there’s little incentive to change anything. But promoting equity and diversity in all levels of government should be incentive enough.
“I think it’s a priority and values issue more than [a] money [issue]. The Department of Education spent over $8 million just on a security detail for former Secretary Betsy DeVos,” says Vera. “So don’t tell me, you know, there isn’t $3 or $4 million there to pay interns. It simply is not the case.”
If only the most wealthy, privileged students can intern on the Hill without significant stain, then our government will continue to fail to reflect the diversity of our country.