Unpaid Interns Negatively Impact Diversity in Congress

After graduating with honors from Ohio’s Baldwin Wallace University, Aziz Ahmad was offered a fellowship in 2016 from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy and public policy organization. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a recent political science graduate. Ahmad, who says he comes from a lower middle-class family, would enjoy a busy summer accessing the networking motherlode of Washington, DC while garnering valuable experience and attractive bullet points for his résumé.

There was only one problem: DC is among the nation’s 10 most expensive cities, and Ahmad would have to rely on his savings and a $1,500 stipend offered by the Council. Ahmad juggled two unpaid internships that summer, including one in the office of Georgia Democratic Representative Hank Johnson, and lived with three roommates in an outlying, less expensive part of the city.

Ahmad also saved money by fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He wouldn’t have to spend money on lunch and could eat free meals at the numerous iftar fast-breaking events offered by local mosques and other organizations at night. “That was actually one of the reasons why I felt a little bit more comfortable taking the internship,” Ahmad told The North Star.

Ahmad’s experience reflects the type of financial calculations some of Capitol Hill’s hundreds of interns must make each year to figure out how, with limited financial means, they can take advantage of the immense opportunity a Hill internship affords. These opportunities are often out of reach for minorities, who tend to come from lower income households, or who aren’t proactively recruited and might not be aware of such opportunities.

The ubiquity of unpaid internship programs on the Hill reinforces structural elitism by requiring that interns have talent and financial means. This lack of ground-level diversity in Congress has broader implications because interns often rise into senior paid positions, or pivot into various elected offices. While Congress collects no data about intern demographics, and each office crafts its own internship policy, there’s plenty of evidence of lacking diversity among Hill staff, many of whom previously served as interns. Despite considerable gains for non-whites and women in the current Congress, the Pew Research Center found that nearly four out of five lawmakers are white and three out of four are men.

Diversity among congressional staff is worse. A December 2015 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that only 7 percent of senior Senate staff and 14 percent of senior House staff were people of color, despite comprising 38 percent of the US population. A recent Center for Responsive Politics report concluded that despite significant improvements in diversity following the 2018 midterm elections, Congress continues to lag in its representation of women and minorities compared to their share of the national population.

This discord between national and congressional demographics is starkest among Republican lawmakers, where the party’s glaring indifference to the dangerous rise of white nativism resulted in just one woman (Carol Miller of West Virginia) and one person of color (Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio) joining their pool of new members. Republicans now have fewer women voting members in Congress than before the midterms. Mia Love of Utah, the first and only Republican Black woman elected to Congress, lost her seat in the midterm election and lashed out at her party for the “transactional” way it engages with minorities.

“Fields where unpaid internships become a virtual requirement, a barrier to entry, are less diverse in terms of race and class,” Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, told The North Star. “The unpaid internship economy is problematic for the interns themselves, but the effects can be more severe for those who can’t afford to play the game in the first place.”

Unpaid internships impede efforts to level the playing field in the US workforce. Students who can afford this pay-to-play system get ahead faster than students who can’t, which amounts to a head start for children of wealthy families that exacerbate the country’s racial wealth gap.

Workplace elitism in Congress has even more serious ramifications because of the role lawmakers and their staff play in crafting laws that affect daily life.

“There are only a few people who can work for three months without any pay, and that’s one reason why people of color are not largely represented,” R.J. Khalaf, a 22-year-old former congressional intern in the office of Representative André Carson (D-Ind.), and co-founder and director of LEAD Palestine. “Congressional interns are largely a group of white, middle and upper-class students who go to elite colleges, who have the financial opportunity to spend thousands of dollars to work for a representative on the Hill.”

Former congressional interns of color described feeling like the odd-person-out in rooms full of white faces, or a feeling that they’re used as tokens in photo opportunities aimed at showcasing a lawmaker’s diversity efforts. For some, Congress seems like a foreboding, well-fortified white castle on a hill. Engaging people from different backgrounds that more accurately reflect the country’s demographics would bring more viewpoints into the rooms where laws are made, according to advocates for paid internships.

“[Capitol Hill] seems inaccessible to Black and Brown folks,” Vashti Hinton, a 24-year-old former congressional intern, told The North Star. “It’s one of those places people talk about, but we don’t go there. It’s the same as with the criminal justice system. Historically, it hasn’t been something that’s been positive for us.”

Hinton, who now works as a college outreach coordinator for the North Carolina chapter of the political watchdog group Common Cause, became the first full-time hire from a four-year-old bipartisan program targeting students from North Carolina’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). After interning in the offices of the program sponsors, Hinton landed a paid job working for Representative Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).

Hinton’s experience and the program that helped her may be a sign of things to come as Congress has begun, slowly, to grapple with the way it favors students that already enjoy greater social privilege and mobility. In September, Congress approved its $147 billion budget for the current fiscal year, including nearly $14 million to pay congressional interns up to $1,800 a month.

A typical DC summertime internship requires an average of $6,000 to cover housing, travel, food, and other expenses, according to grassroots advocacy organization Pay Our Interns. But a 2017 report by the group found that barely half of Senate Republicans offered paid internships and only 31 percent of Democrats paid their interns. In the House, only 19 of 257 Republicans and only 7 of 200 Democrats compensate their intern staff. (Yes, that means labor-rights-touting Democrats in Congress are less likely than Republicans to pay their interns.)

“The workforce is a pipeline and internships are entry points, and if these entry points aren’t accessible then we shouldn’t be asking why our workforce isn’t diverse. The answer is right there,” Pay Our Interns co-founder Guillermo Creamer, 24, told The North Star.

On March 25, Creamer’s group began a six-week national tour of HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions to raise awareness of its Reflect Usweb portal that connects students to opportunities in the offices of their elected representatives. Pay Our Interns plans to knock on doors in Congress this summer to find out which lawmakers have used the new congressional funds to begin paying their interns. Creamer says that funds have been available to the Senate since October 1, but “we have Senate interns emailing us asking why their office isn’t using the money to pay them.” For Ahmad, who relied on fasting to help cover his expenses, access to Congress proved particularly invaluable. The 23-year-old Ohio native took his experiences home to run last as a Democrat for a seat in his state’s House of Representatives. Though he lost to the Republican incumbent with nearly 40 percent of the vote, Ahmad’s showing was significant considering he ran as a millennial-aged Muslim-American in a red-leaning Rust Belt state.

“I think the experience of being in DC, having that background and experience of understanding the back-end of how policy is made, it definitely helped inform the policies that I ran on,” Ahmad said. With greater diversity among congressional lawmakers, including younger officeholders wielding fresher ideas, there’s hope among current and former interns of color that the tide is shifting.

“I’m definitely very optimistic,” Carissa Smith, a 24-year-old former intern for New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, said. “I think it speaks volumes to where we are as a country and what we’re moving towards, our Congress reflecting what our country actually looks like.”

About the Author

Angelo Young is a NYC-based reporter, editor, and writing coach who enjoys pondering world events and idle chatter on the subway. He has more than a decade of news editing experience with bylines in Newsweek, International Business Times, Salon, Arab News, The Daily Star (of Lebanon), Mexico Business magazine, The News (of Mexico City) and The Oklahoma Daily.