A recent report in WAMU, the DC NPR station out of American University, explored the widespread use of unpaid interns in the halls of Congress. This is an issue I have often brought up in conversations with friends here inside the beltway.
The DC area is very expensive to live in and most people here are not native to the area. This means that to come and work for free you either need some startup resources (often parental help) or make ends meet some other way. This method has consequences, eloquently put by one of those interns.
One result of offering only unpaid positions, Vera said, is a noticeable lack of diversity within the intern pool.
“There’s a reason why, if you walk around the halls, all the interns look like me,” said Anthony Eliopoulos, a current House intern from Ohio. Eliopoulos, who describes himself as “a white, straight male,” said the financial strain caused by unpaid internships means that other well-qualified young people can’t make it to Washington, like he did.
But Eliopoulos didn’t get to D.C. on luck alone. To afford his time away from home, he saved up the money he earned from completing basic training with the Ohio National Guard. He also was able to live rent-free with family in Maryland. Even with all the planning and outside support, he said the costs of parking, Metro, food, and business clothes added up quickly in a city as expensive as Washington.
Unpaid public service warps the view of what public service means. Right now the children of the dominant classes use it as a stepping stone to find more lucrative work in the lobbying industry or helps perpetuate a power elite in political parties. It will ensure that as more people country continue to descend into poverty the ruling class remains insulated from it. And that's not good for democracy.