Why The Hell Isn't Congress Paying Its Interns?

Photo: Getty Images.
It's 2017 and not paying interns is unfortunately still a thing. In many industries, unpaid internships are a rite of passage. But it's also an experience accessible only to students who have the means to survive a summer or semester without a steady paycheck. Disappointingly, congressional internships are not the exception.
Mic reports that about 90% of the U.S. House of Representatives' members don't offer paid internships. The situation is slightly better (but still pretty bad) in the Senate, where about 52% of senators have unpaid interns. And people in Congress know this is happening, like the staffer who "jokingly" told Mic that Capitol Hill is the "best place in the world for free labor."
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Based on those stats, it's clear both Republicans and Democrats have a horrible track record when it comes to paying interns. To quote my fellow journalist, Lily Herman, "Many of your faves are problematic."
Getting an internship can make or break someone's career, as many hiring managers expect applicants to have some experience in their field by the time they finish school. According to the B.A. Rudolph Foundation, 51.7% of students who have an internship while in college receive a job offer by the time they graduate. If students don't intern, those chances drop to 17%.
Which leads us to this: Affording an unpaid internship is a matter of privilege. Typically, people who have solid financial support systems are the ones able to agree to a $0 paycheck just for the experience, while students from lower income families are forced to forego those opportunities to take gigs outside of their field that might lessen their financial stress. In fact, a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employees found that students from families with a household income of $120,000 or higher are more likely to take up an unpaid internship than students from families earning less than $80,000.
And you know who typically comes from households that earn less than $80,000? Students of color. They are often first-generation college students, who don't have the comfort of generational wealth, and who shoulder most of the student debt in this country.
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According to the Pay Our Interns campaign, an internship in a major U.S. city such as Washington, D.C. costs students about $6,000 on average. (Other organizations estimate an unpaid internship can cost up to $13,000 when adding up lost wages and living costs.) And even though colleges may offer financial assistance to congressional interns, for someone who already has money struggles, those stipends might not be enough.
So asking students to take an internship in Congress for a few months without offering them money will inevitably lead to the #InternsSoWhite debacle from 2016. (Remember the infamous Paul Ryan selfie?)

I think this sets a record for the most number of #CapitolHill interns in a single selfie. #SpeakerSelfie.

A post shared by Speaker Paul Ryan (@speakerryan) on

Considering the Democrats introduced an initiative a few months ago to foster diversity among their staff, it's even more disappointing to see that only 3.6% of Democrats in the House offer paid internships. It's cool they want to implement the "Rooney Rule" for staffers, but maybe they should encourage diversity in their ranks by offering opportunities from the bottom up, i.e. paying their interns, which could help create an intern-to-staffer pipeline. And not to mention, Democrats have been at the forefront of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Again, why aren't they paying their interns?
It's difficult to imagine what young, working class students sacrifice when they do choose to do an internship during which their wages are going to be $0. Maybe they find additional part-time jobs, or take on more debt, or both. Maybe they're forced to turn down an internship opportunity because they know the financial strain it will cause.
Limiting access to Congress by leaving out people who can't afford unpaid gigs means that only the privileged will continue to be in power. And if the history of the United States teaches us anything, it's that, most of the time, the people in power will be white and male, and will continue to enact policies that directly impact minorities. It's a vicious circle that needs to be broken, and there actually is a somewhat easy fix. Pay your interns, Congress. Unpaid internships are bullshit. As the so-called leaders of our country you should know better.
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