Each summer in Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill is crowded with interns who answer phones, open constituent mail and assist members of Congress. But instead of getting paid for their services, many of them are actually spending thousands of dollars to be there.
Carlos Mark Vera has a problem with that.
Vera is the founder of Pay Our Interns, a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that aims to increase the number of paid internships in government and the private sector. He is also one of the authors of a new Pay Our Interns report titled “Experience Doesn’t Pay The Bills: Why Paid Internships are a Must in Congress.”
The report calls unpaid internships “a blight marring the face of the American job market,” and argues that the scarcity of paid internships on the Hill diminishes the likelihood that students of color and low-income students will enter the intern-to-staffer pipeline in Congress. This, in turn, leads to a more homogenous government workforce.
The extent of the problem the report outlines is startling. In the U.S. Senate, 51 percent of Republicans pay their interns, while only 31 percent of Democrats offer paid internships. The rates in the House of Representatives are even worse, with 8 percent of Republican representatives and 3.6 percent of Democratic representatives paying their interns.
One reason representatives pay such a small percentage of their interns is that each representative has a hiring cap of 18 paid positions and 4 additional positions on his or her staff. The White House, which is not included in the report, has an unpaid internship program.
The report provides the first full list of senators and representatives who offer paid internships and explains the importance of paying young college students who hope to get a start in politics.
Vera, himself a first-generation college student who immigrated from Colombia as a child and interned in D.C., said Pay Our Interns wants to make careers in government more accessible to students of various socioeconomic backgrounds. Many congressional interns go on to become staffers and start writing policy.
However, the cost of living in major cities like Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco ― the places college students say they’d most want to work ― averages approximately $6,000 for the length of a typical summer internship, according to a Time magazine article the report cites. If internships in these expensive cities are unpaid, only students who can afford to work for free, or who are willing to suffer monetary stress, can take them.
Hispanic-American college students have the lowest rate of internship participation (53.3 percent), followed by African-American college students (59.5 percent), Asian-American college students (63.2 percent) and Caucasian college students (68.2 percent), according to research by the B.A. Rudolph Foundation, which offers a scholarship for unpaid female interns in D.C. and is cited in Pay Our Interns’ report.
“The voice of the average American is muffled when the only people entering politics are the economically privileged,” the report reads.
Vera said that there were no institutional or budgetary differences that would explain why Republicans offer more paid internships than Democrats, but he has a theory.
“People say that Democrats like to say, ‘Well, you know, you’re getting paid with knowing that you’re making the world a better place,’ right? While Republicans are under no illusions of that, and believe that you should get paid for your work. That’s my opinion,” he said.
Pay Our Interns obtained these numbers by calling congressional offices, meeting directly with representatives and looking at members’ governmental websites. In the process, the group noted that information on whether lawmakers offer paid internships was “conspicuously” absent from some of their webpages.
Pay Our Interns issues a series of recommendations to address problems like this. Along with asking members of Congress to clearly share whether and how much they will pay interns, the authors recommend raising the position cap in the House and reinstating a congressional paid internship program.
That now-defunct program, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Congressional Intern Program, operated in the House from 1973 to 1994 and offered each intern a $1,000, two-month internship. However, funds for the program have not been appropriated since the 103rd Congress. The currently reduced number of paid internships “limits the potential of our democracy because it shuts out the full spectrum of ideas, life experiences, and talent,” Pay Our Interns argues.
“And that’s why our report’s called ‘Experience Doesn’t Pay The Bills,’” Vera said. “Because obviously, [experience is] nice, but experience is not going to pay your rent, the suits that you have to purchase, the food or transportation.”