by Kyle Schoenbelen
Cleaning my apartment the other day, I came across a mug buried under the couch. The mug is emblazoned with the logo—and heady if not pretentious motto—of my employer from the summer of 2012: “Bridging the gap between thought and action.” I ended summer 2012 one mug up because I completed a full-time internship at a prestigious Washington D.C. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This year’s University of Pennsylvania rankings place the organization at as the fourth most influential of its kind in the world, and the intern selection process was correspondingly competitive. I worked hard and learned much from my experience over 3 months at the center. I also made exactly zero dollars.
Not that I have any complaints. The experience was well worth it; the net gain from my time at CSIS far outweighed my temporary lack of beer money. I was an undergraduate and my unpaid colleagues, most of whom were graduate students (and some of whom were married with families) obviously felt the same way.
It is an open secret that large swaths of DC run on the sweat and tears of unpaid interns, and this arrangement is generally taken for granted. Internships for congressional representatives, government agencies, think tanks, and NGOs are almost universally unpaid. This means that if students want to acquire direct experience in policy, they must either live in the Washington area, have parents who are willing to front the cost, or be one of the few who are able to win a scholarship or grant for summer work. For many students at schools like UVA, Princeton, or Georgetown, this isn’t an issue. Taking an unpaid summer is viewed as a necessary sacrifice for long-term career prospects– a sort of price of entry into the field. For the vast majority of people, however, the idea of spending an entire summer working full time for no pay while dealing with DC’s significant cost of living seems downright ridiculous.
Frequently, young adults who raise the issue of unpaid internships are caricatured as whiny, over-educated rich kids upset because they have to order Jim Beam instead of Maker’s Mark during their nights out in Adams Morgan. “The dry-cleaning bill for that bourbon stain on my Barbour jacket isn’t going to pay itself,” thinks the girl whose lobbyist uncle set her up with a Hill gig for the summer. “Good thing I have daddy’s Am-ex card for emergencies like these!” Such dismissive critiques, while humorous, implicitly define a decidedly un-humorous problem— only affluent students are in a position to complain about unpaid DC jobs in the first place. In real life, Charlie Young from West Wing doesn’t even get an interview.
The result of this insulated, beltway mindset is that career-sparking experiences in policy, having already been restricted to accomplished students from top-tier universities, are further restricted to affluent students who already fit those first two criteria. This trend perpetuates a glaring inequality of opportunity facing students looking to pursue a career in public service. More importantly, it deprives the field of diverse and capable talent. Yes, scholarships and grants exist, and some organizations provide modest stipends for normally unpaid work if an intern demonstrates appropriate need. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and most aid cannot hope to cover the cost of D.C. living. For example, living in a dorm at George Washingon University for the summer–a popular and ‘affordable’ choice for Hill interns–is $252 dollars a week, not including food or kitchen facilities. Even hypothetically working 20 hours a week waiting tables on top of a full-time internship just wouldn’t cover it.
Unequal opportunity based on economic status is, of course, not limited to internships in the field of public policy. Children of well-off parents start with a leg up in education, college choice, and ease of access to whichever field they choose. The acceptance of unpaid internships in DC as the status quo, however, exacerbates this effect in the realm of policymaking. Should we not be concerned that internships, increasingly necessary for a career in policy, are for the most part closed to those who cannot afford to spend thousands while earning nothing? That we lose dynamic young minds who wish to use their talents for the public good simply because they can’t afford the summer experience?
There are already enough barriers to entry keeping smart, willing students out of the policy arena. Given public policy’s unique importance to functioning democracy, we should adopt measures on the federal level that make policy internships financially viable for the most qualified students regardless of financial need. This could be accomplished through an expanded federal grant program, or though a simple law mandating minimum wage be paid to interns in DC. When an intelligent and motivated student cannot take a Hill internship simply because he/she isn’t in the small percentage of Americans who can afford to work three months for free, the geographic, economic, and intellectual diversity of our policy community suffers. Ultimately, so does our national interest.
It has been just over two years since the country expressed outraged when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Darrell Issa (R-Calif), heard testimony from an all-male, nearly all-white panel on the topic of contraception and religious liberty. The incongruent reality that old, wealthy, Caucasian males overwhelmingly govern an increasingly diverse nation is more glaring than ever. Perhaps instead of bemoaning the motives of political actors, we should work to eliminate the barriers facing young people who could ultimately make the policy perspectives in government more diverse. Clearly, free mugs aren’t doing the trick.
Kyle Schnoebelen serves as the Content Director of the Virginia Policy Review and its associated blog, The Third Rail. He is a second year masters candidate at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and graduated from the University of Virginia in 2013 with a degree in history.