Between Instagram live stories and participating in a sit-in during her training, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is proving to not be an average politician. Besides also not being an elderly white man, Alexandria said that she will pay her interns at least $15 an hour, which is above minimum wage in Washington, D.C.
The Pay Our Interns’ 2017 report revealed that in the United States Senate, 51 percent of Republicans paid their interns and 31 percent of Democrats paid their interns. In the House, it was even more dismal. Eight percent of Republican representatives paid their interns, and less than four percent of Democrat representatives paid their interns. I never thought Republicans would be better at doing something good than Democrats. But hey, it’s not bad to be proven wrong.
The incentive to find an internship is clear: internship experience often leads to jobs, and for many college students, employment is one of the first things on our minds when we think about the future. This often leads to university students taking advantage of any internship offer they can find, even if it is unpaid.
For many students and their families, this can be a major financial sacrifice. A student may decide to choose to pursue an unpaid DC-based internship for their local congressman or congresswomen over a paid service job. A CNN article, which was published this fall, revealed sacrifices that some of these interns had to make, like skipping meals. Former House intern Sophie Peters, who was interviewed for the CNN piece, was able to get a grant but had to babysit outside of her 40-hour work week in order to pay for her rent and other expenses.
Peters also said that competition for Congressional internships doesn’t seem to be driven by talent but instead by “who can afford to work for free when they’re 20 years old.” This hints at a more major problem: people who are able to take unpaid internships are often those who are from well-off (mostly white) families. This is why it’s so important that Alexandria plans to pay her interns.
Reporter Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones explained in an editorial piece for The Awl that the lack of representation in interns plays a role in whose voices are heard down the road. “This ultimately exacerbates social inequality because key professions get filled up with people from privileged backgrounds,” Llewellyn wrote. “It not only affects who gets ahead and does well, it also plays a big role in terms of the voices we hear in the media, politics, arts, etc.”
It makes sense that Alexandria would want to pay her interns, given her background and her path to Congress. She comes from a working-class family and managed to trounce incumbent U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley. Crowley is someone who could be considered an establishment politician – he is the son of a lawyer and has held his seat for twenty years. Alexandria’s win speaks to the desire for change that many of us want. We want politicians who will stand up for us, just like how Alexandria is standing up for her interns by promising to pay them.
Unpaid internships shouldn’t be a thing anywhere, as labor needs to be valued. Good for Alexandria for wanting to pay her interns a livable wage, and hopefully this will help put a stop to unpaid internships in Washington, D.C. and the world.