Unpaid Internship Programs are Inequitable, Hypocritical

by Ian Perry


Unpaid policy internships are unacceptable.  They unfairly limit the opportunity for students lacking substantial personal savings or family support and stand in stark contrast to the stated mission of many sponsoring organizations.  Some industries notorious for unpaid internships, such as film and media, have begun phasing out unpaid positions in the face of negative publicity and legal pressure, but nonprofits and government organizations continue to free ride on the labor of their unpaid interns, and that is just wrong.

When interns are not paid for their labor, they must come up with other sources of financial support.  Since unpaid interns frequently put in forty or more hours per week at their internship, little time remains for paid side jobs.  Without other savings to tap, or family members who are able to offer support, this financial burden can be too much to bear.  As a result, students without their own savings or family resources are much less able to take an unpaid internship than their wealthier peers.

This inequality of opportunity is in and of itself an unjust result, but it also produces additional harm by skewing the worldview of these organizations.  By placing internships out of the reach of students without ample financial resources, these organizations limit the perspective of their intern classes to those with privileges of at least moderate wealth.  While interns are not setting the priorities of these organizations, they are gaining access to the bottom rungs of a ladder that will eventually lead to leadership positions.  This leads to an inherent economic bias, as even well-intentioned individuals working for these groups will lack the life experiences of those with less financial means.  These blind spots compromise their ability to make optimal policy decisions when it comes to issues like alleviating poverty, or protecting the working class, due to the deficit of staffers with firsthand knowledge of those communities.

These unpaid internships are particularly galling considering the political stances of many of the sponsoring organizations.  For example, the Center for American Progress only offers “a small stipend to reimburse interns for a portion of the expenses directly related to their internship.”  At the same time, CAP advocates for a $12 per hour minimum wage, and publishes student op-eds arguing against unpaid internships.  This double standard is not just limited to the world of non-profit (albeit well-funded) think tanks.  The Council of Economic Advisors, part of the Executive Office of the President, does not pay its interns, but also argues for a higher minimum wage.  Even the United Nations refuses to pay its interns, which led to a scandal in 2015 when news reports surfaced that an unpaid intern was living in a tent.

Other industries like film and media have been shamed or sued into actually paying their interns.  Nonprofits are not held to the same legal standards because individuals are allowed to volunteer for these organizations, so unpaid interns do not have the same legal options as their peers working in the for-profit sector.  One potential solution is to organize intern labor unions.  Last summer, interns at the American Federation for Teachers, a major teachers’ union, began organizing after seeing their pay set below the $15 per hour minimum wage the union was seeking.
It is unacceptable that unpaid interns have to take such drastic action to be treated as well as the workers their host organizations advocate for, but given the persistence of this issue there may not be a better solution.  Students should not feel shy demanding a basic right: a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

Ian Perry is an MPP Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Before coming to Goldman, he was an analyst at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.