Are Unpaid Political Internships Withholding Opportunity from Young People?

(Damn good post, Cowgirl. – promoted by c rork)

The unpaid internship is a rite of passage for young professionals today–or, rather, for the young professionals who can afford to perform weeks or months of work without financial compensation. Says Ross Perlin, the 28-year-old author of Intern Nation:

Those who can’t access internships, those who can’t pay to play, who can’t afford to work unpaid for significant amounts of time … those people are being left behind, and they’re unable to enter a lot of key professions in the white-collar workforce. Professions like politics, media, film, and entertainment. There is a social justice issue here.

(emphasis mine)

As a twenty-something young professional myself–and one who had to leave unpaid internships behind after high school, as I was self-supporting with no debt by age 18–this quote rang true to me. How many of my talented young friends would have the resources to take the internship of a lifetime if it came without even a small stipend? I can think of few.

Upon digging deeper, I discovered additional troubling statistics indicating a potentially worsening class divide among the young.  

One study is especially applicable to our little corner of the Internet. From the University of California, Berkley:

Overall, the study found, less than 10 percent of the U.S. population is participating in most online production activities, and having a college degree is a greater predictor of who will generate publicly available online content than being young and white.

The results suggest that the digital divide for social media users is wider between the haves and have-nots than it is between young and old, and underscore growing concerns that the poor and working classes lack the resources to participate fully in civic life, much of which is now online. That chasm is unlikely to break down until everyone has a host of digital production tools at both home and work, Schradie said.

(Hat tip to Sirota for bringing this study to light–I’m not the biggest fan, but the man knows how to spot a compelling story.)

What does this have to do with unpaid internships? Bear with me for a moment, and let’s look at something lower-income students depend upon heavily: Libraries. In 2010, Library Journal reported that social networking sites are segregated by income and social class. Myspace attracts residents of blue-collar neighborhoods, with only 16% of users making over $100,000 annually. By comparison, more than one-third of LinkedIn users earn six figures. According to the same article, young people using the Internet at public libraries tend to be loyal MySpace users.

In a 2009 presentation at the International Communications Association Conference, danah boyd documented a migration from MySpace to Facebook as a population of students graduated from high school and moved on to college. She suggested that it’s not a matter of choosing one over the other as much as an exodus fueled by the perception of MySpace as an unsafe ghetto.

Back to those internships once more. As Perlin points out, it takes significant resources to work for free. Even living on a shoestring budget and student loans, you’ll likely need, at the very least, friends willing to house you in the area of the internship for nothing or almost nothing; enough cash on hand to pay for transportation; contacts or credit to acquire professional apparel; and the list could easily go on.

But if you secure one of those high-profile political internships, presto! You’re exposed to white collar social networking. You’re part of that top 10% creating the bulk of publicly available Web content. Why? Because, in internship situations, young people are typically called upon to handle social networking, which is perceived as their strength–even though, according to the Berkley study, a young intern’s social class is more predictive of her online content production habits than is her age.

According to the New York Times, many unpaid internships are illegal, yet they’re mushrooming, particularly those marketed to affluent students.

No one keeps official count of how many paid and unpaid internships there are, but Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, sees definitive evidence that the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming – fueled by employers’ desire to hold down costs and students’ eagerness to gain experience for their résumés. Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year (author’s note: this refers to 2010), more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.

And where are the most desirable unpaid internships of all located?

The White House, of course. Applications opened this week for 2013 White House internships.

White House Internships are unpaid positions. Applicants are encouraged to contact educational and other non-profit organizations to apply for funding or housing assistance, but note that any outside income, funding or housing assistance you may receive as a White House intern must be pre-approved by the White House Counsel’s Office.   If you are selected as an intern, we will be in contact with you to review any outside funds you intend to receive.

In Colorado, many of our local candidates and elected officials hire talented young people and pay them something as close to a living wage as state-level candidates can afford while making what can hardly be called a “living wage” themselves.

Nationally, however, political firms and politicians are quite prone to offer the standard “experience and college credit” as compensation for hard work that may or may not qualify as a legal unpaid position under federal law.

Essentially, and most importantly, the employer should “derive no immediate advantage” from the intern’s work. That’s hardly a criterion I’ve seen applied to internships advertised to students in any collegiate institution I’ve attended! The above described White House internships might qualify–barely–but what of the numerous unpaid internships that have students fetching coffee, updating Twitter, arranging events, and more?

Students are hardly equipped to report these internships to enforcement agencies at a time when many in-demand entry level jobs are completely inaccessible to applicants without internship experience. Yet, unpaid internships are not an effective method of identifying and developing the best talent among passionate students. Rather, they identify and develop any talent that happens to be present among the students of a socioeconomic background enabling them to pursue a period of unpaid work.

All the while, a digital class divide appears to be widening throughout the social networking communities once heralded as a great equalizer. Sure, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog:

But does it matter if you know whether or not your conversational partner is a dog, if she’s overwhelmingly statistically predisposed to be not only human, but also college educated and affluent?

“For the children” is perhaps the most frequently repeated of all contemporary political canards. (Or, perhaps second to questioning one’s opponent’s patriotism.)

Most recently, Rep. Walsh crashed and burned when nobly declaring his intention to heap “not one more dollar” of debt upon his kids or grandkids, all the while dodging his own child support obligation.

Is it any less egregious when a person or organization claims to have the best interests of the young at heart in offering a “prestigious internship opportunity,” but fails to pay students for work that does, indeed, provide an immediate benefit to the employer?

When young people earn, we save, invest, and spend. When we do those things, we secure our futures and stimulate the economy. By paying young people for their hard work, political employers can extend opportunity to students who otherwise would be forced to use their advanced studies to inform their work behind a fast food counter, rather than in the fast-paced and challenging world of politics.

By paying interns, employers can also free themselves to demand a high standard of work, and demand that interns’ work provide a tangible benefit to the employer. Furthermore, already competitive internships (and politicians are fond of reminding us of the benefits of competition in the marketplace!) would be made still more competitive by opening them up to students unable to accept unpaid work. Your most talented future intern may be a young person on her own, with no familial support to help her eat while working for free.

As a young professional and current college student, I call upon each and every politician who has ever claimed, or will ever claim, to work on behalf of the “next generation” or “our children” to commit to paying his or her interns. It’s a small investment in a brighter future for us all.  

About ProgressiveCowgirl

Colorado native, young professional, progressive cowgirl. 4-term FPE (aka masochist).

20 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. DavidThi808 says:

    We’re concerned with getting the best students, not the richest. And it’s still a super-good deal for us.

  2. Barron X says:


    learning that life ain’t fair.

    But even if you WERE able to rectify this part of the cozy arrangement that serves the plutocracy so well,

    you seem to be unaware that

    internships in the offices of Congress persons go to the children of the politically connected.  

    In effect, Members get paid (in various ways) by the wealthy to “hire” their children.  

    It’s worse than you think.

    But at least you graduated from an Ivy League school, right ?  


    • ProgressiveCowgirl says:

      If you mean “the association of schools with an ivy problem in at least one campus building” maybe….

      No Ivy League degree: Kind of a bummer.

      $0 student loan debt: Pretty cool.

      I’m not done yet–I’m a CSU gal.

      And I know of at least one Congressman who gives internships to people who aren’t kids of big donors 🙂  

    • faux_american says:

      I was an intern on the hill for a U.S. Senator, and didn’t come from a politically connected background.  

  3. Middle of the Road says:

    thank you. It belongs on the front page. Damn good read with some interesting issues being raised.  

  4. bjwilson83 says:

    Instead of passing legislation arbitrarily banning unpaid internships, you simply need to educate people as to what is going on. The next step would be to encourage students not to accept unpaid internships, although in this economy, beggars can’t be choosers. Higher employment would cause employers to compete for talent by paying better wages.

  5. Diogenesdemar says:

    considered and treated as “in kind” contributions to the office holders?

  6. DevilishlyModerate says:

    I’ve been on both sides of the fence.

    After college I did two unpaid political internships. I also worked at a restaurant in the evenings and retail over the weekends. I was dirt poor and built up a lot of debt but I was willing to do anything to learn and gain experience. I always had in the back of my mind that it would pay off in a few years.

    Looking back, it gave me the work ethic and drive that I have today and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Today, I hire interns on occasion. I agree that the intern pool is a bit limited to rich and “entitled” kids out of college which i’m not happy about, but once in a while i’ll come across the ones who are doing it for the right reasons. In those cases, I’ll do my utmost to help them in their cause. I’ve found that the time it takes to teach an intern the job can make an internship more work than what it’s worth. Internships should benefit both parties.


  7. Obvious Alias says:

    This is especially interesting in light of Congress shutting down it’s page program.

    I mean if congressmen had to pay pages for their “services” wouldn’t it be considered prostitution? 😉

  8. The Combination says:

    I have been there PCG and I would not be where I am today without being an unpaid intern.  I was lucky, my internships were more than fetching coffee and making copies (although that is a rite of passage for all interns).  I actually worked on projects and felt like I contributed to the team.  Because of that experience, I try to give all of my interns the same opportunity I had and try to make the experience worth their time because I know what they are giving up.  Some have gone on to great things and I hope I played some small role in their success.

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