Unpaid Internships Perpetuate Inequality

There are many smart, dedicated, young people in this country who want to make a difference. And many of them stand facing a locked door. Behind that locked door is the world of unpaid internships that would give them access to networks, markers of prestige, and valuable experience that would give them a leg up in applying for jobs out of college. But the key that fits the lock is made of money. More often than not, especially for undergraduates, those internships are unpaid. To do an unpaid internship, a student needs to be able to provide housing, food, and transportation without any form of income. Such positions are usually, therefore, only available to the children of wealthy parents. We put our entire country at a disadvantage when we put a price tag on gaining access to power. One major purpose of a liberal democracy is to distribute political influence equally among the populace: one person, one vote. But increasingly, we are living in a country dominated by a one dollar, one vote policy, and such a condition is perpetuated by the way we facilitate internship programs in the public sector.

By restricting access to internships in prestigious places like the White House, Senate, State Department, or most major think tanks hiring undergraduates, we are creating additional barriers that people from lower income backgrounds have to overcome in order to succeed in public service. Arguably, these markers are becoming increasingly less significant as criticisms of the political establishment are amplifying. But, to be frank, such a belief underestimates the importance of “resume building” to get jobs in politics, even jobs that are trying to fix the system and make it more equal.

To combat this problem, some colleges provide stipends to students who wish to take an unpaid summer internship, but cannot afford to do so. But these stipends are often not enough, or gaining access to them is so opaque, that students do not bother to seek them out. That is something I have seen at my own school. I know we offer stipends to students on financial aid who wish to pursue unpaid summer internships, but wealthier students have more resources to navigate bureaucracy than students from lower income households. It is vital that schools, and the government, invest more money in helping low-income students afford summer internships in the public sector. The long term benefits far outway the monetary costs. The more people we have from diverse backgrounds getting involved in politics at a young age, the stronger our democracy will be. Without it, rich white people will continue to be the majority of people holding government positions, and that is a serious problem. Not only does diversity leads to better problem solving, but it’s also the morally right thing to do. Many of the people who do not have access to unpaid internships who want them have been systematically oppressed by race, class, gender, and immigration status, in addition to a myriad of other marginalized identities.    While the unpaid labor is particularly valuable to the public sector, the system must be reformed in some way. Either federal, state, and local governments must do more to make such positions more affordable, or higher education institutions need to make a better effort to make stipends available to all students who need them through a transparent process. The cycle must end. Money must no longer give the wealthy greater access to politics. All young people must be given the money key to unlock the door to the world of unpaid internships.


Image Credit: Feature, 1,  2,  3