Last summer, I worked as an intern in Washington, D.C. for a large federal agency. I lived in a George Washington University dorm, and many of my high school friends shared a house in Georgetown. We had an amazing summer—learning at our jobs, exploring the city, and planning our future careers in public service. This summer, I’m working at the Massachusetts State House, again having a great internship. I’m seeing the inner workings of another branch of government, making more connections, and gaining valuable experience for my career.
This story seems simple enough, but in reality, the opportunity to have such experiences is a far reach for most students. Why? Because neither the state nor federal government pay their interns. I’m fortunate enough to go to Harvard, where the Institute Of Politics has funding that can help cover some or most of the cost of a summer internship. And even then, I was lucky to receive that funding; despite our huge endowment, Harvard is unable to provide stipends for most of its students interested in working in public service. Further, my parents live in Boston and let me live rent-free for the summer. They both have steady jobs, so I don’t have to contribute to household expenses.
These factors have made it possible for me to get a leg up on my career in public service. This is true not only for me, but for many other students with similar backgrounds—middle or upper-middle class and living near internship centers like Boston, New York, and D.C. Given the fact that internships are the most important factor in deciding whether to hire a recent college graduate, this also produces a profound effect on the makeup of those who work full-time for the government. In short, unpaid internships undermine the American ideal of a representative democracy.
In many ways, the ideal of a “representative democracy” has failed to live up to its name; consider, for example, the statistic that the sons of senators are 8,500 times more likely to become senators themselves. But beyond the influence of money, connections, and privilege on our elected officials, consider too how these factors influence their staffs: Unpaid internships exist as a huge privilege for the well-to-do in getting jobs in government.
And staff matters. Staffers draft the bills and advise the legislators how to vote on them, implement government programs, and provide constituent services. They help elected officials plan their agendas, write the speeches, and direct funding. They are the cogs that keep the government machine running.
Having a staff of former interns means that our government is run by people who are better prepared for the job, who arrive armed from the first day with experience and understanding. But as long as those internships remain unpaid, it also means that our government employs a disproportionate number of people who grew up relatively well-off. This is bad news for our ideals and our pocketbooks.
Beyond the argument for representative democracy, there’s plenty of data to back up the benefits of diversity. Harvard Business Review tells us that companies with a diverse workforce are 45% likelier to report growth, and McKinsey reports a linear relationship between racial diversity and financial performance. Though the government certainly is not equivalent to for-profit corporations, the benefits of a diverse workforce are nevertheless clear and substantial. And, moreover, we all have a stake in the financial performance of our government, its agenda, and its services.
Government workers structure and manage programs for the poor like transitional assistance and Medicaid, legal services and affordable housing. Take a look at the kinds of life experiences are shaping that process: It makes sense for those who’ve relied on government programs in the past to have a strong voice in shaping them for the future. Further, people from various regions will bring up different concerns while drafting state or national policy. We miss out on geographic diversity of staff when those who can’t afford to rent apartments in major cities on a nonexistent salary lose an opportunity to enter public service.
Paid internships are not only fair but also beneficial for our democratic government. In order to employ the best and brightest in public service, it must be possible for students of all backgrounds to work in government on summer breaks. Paying government interns would bring America closer to a democracy that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people.Megan O. Corrigan ’16 is a History concentrator living in Winthrop House.