Dear Washington, DC progressives: Pay your interns—here’s why

This is not what America actually looks like.
This is not what America actually looks like.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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When I was 24 years old, I wrote my first speech for President Obama. I bring this up for two reasons, and the first is to make you think I’m amazing.

But the second reason actually matters. As proud as I am of my time at the White House (heck, I just wrote a book about it), my road to a DC dream job was far, far smoother than it would have been for countless others who are no less talented and driven. Too often, the opportunity to enter public service is limited to the privileged. That needs to change.

To its credit, the Obama administration understood this. They worked hard to make government more diverse, and not because of liberal guilt or “political correctness.” President Obama understood that when America’s institutions look more like America, the entire country is better off. In the second term especially, this was an important White House priority. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue became a place where rooms full of white dudes were the exception and not the rule—and judging from the makeup of her campaign staff, I have no doubt Hillary Clinton would have built upon this progress.

Sadly, these efforts have hit a bigoted, orange speed bump. Donald Trump has turned the White House into an affirmative-action program for mediocre white men. I’m fairly certain “Nepotism” is the motto below the Trump family crest. There’s nothing we can do about that, at least for the next few years.

But there is something else we can do, right now, to level the playing field for young people hoping to enter public service. Every winter, fall, and summer, thousands of new interns arrive at progressive organizations across Washington, eager to do their part to defend American values and serve the country they love.

It’s time for those interns to get paid.

More than just about any other city, DC runs on intern labor. Interns answer the phones in Senate Offices. They research policy for think thanks. They enter data for campaigns. At private sector companies, whose budget isn’t set by Congress, entry-level employees can handle the thankless jobs. But at a place like the White House, those jobs are done by interns. Without them, our nation’s capital would fall apart. In exchange, young people get the chance to build skills and discover new interests.

More important, however, they get an audition. Non-profits and government organizations are short on resources and time. They don’t want to hire someone who makes life miserable for everyone in the office—but they can’t afford to take months to fill an entry-level job.

Internships give overworked managers a shortcut. Have an opening at the bottom of the totem pole? Hire the eager young person who’s already in the office every day. That’s how I got my first jobs in politics. On the 2008 campaign, I was promoted from unpaid “organizing fellow” to underpaid field organizer. When I moved to DC, I went from intern to associate at a private-sector speechwriting firm. The Obama White House worked the same way. We frequently hired interns to stay on as junior staffers, or recommended them for good jobs around town.

The interns we hired earned those jobs, just as I’m confident I earned mine. But I also received an enormous benefit I didn’t earn: my parents could afford to help me pay my expenses while I was starting out.

It’s hard to overstate how much of a difference this made. Driving out to Ohio for the campaign didn’t mean burning through my savings. I moved to Washington without wondering how I could pay my sky-high rent. I had still had to work hard and prove myself—but I could do those things without being encumbered by countless other large and small worries.

Not everyone is so lucky. There are smart, hard-working, extraordinary Americans who want to do their part for their country. But they never get the chance to, because that first audition is unpaid.

This is alone is a reason for every political organization to start paying its interns. But it’s an especially important reason for progressives. We’re the ones who understand that diversity makes institutions stronger. We believe that politics can be a force for good, that public service is a noble calling, and that the entire country is better off when everyone have the chance to reach his or her full potential.

Every day we close off opportunities to idealistic young people, just because their parents can’t pay their rent, we belie those values. No less important, America misses out on the ideas, enthusiasm, and talent they would bring to bear.

I know that paying interns a living wage—especially in an expensive city like Washington—is difficult. But that’s no reason not to try. During budget negotiations, let’s make paying interns at Congressional offices and federal agencies a priority. Perhaps we tie interns’ stipends to federal student aid, so that taxpayer dollars are only going towards those who need them. Non-profits could work with donors and socially responsible companies to help sponsor deserving young people. (Not incidentally, this would be excellent PR.) Political campaigns could let supporters know that they’re walking the walk when it comes to expanding opportunity. I suspect they’d be handsomely reward by the grassroots.

It’s soon to say exactly how we’ll end the era of unpaid internships in Washington. But we have to recognize that we’re closing off our nation’s capital to too many Americans, just because their parents aren’t rich. We can’t continue to make public service exponentially easier for children of wealthy families, and then wonder why our leaders aren’t standing up for the poor and middle class.

Paying DC’s interns won’t completely rid the hiring system of inequality. It won’t erase the effects of privilege, or compel our country to fully live up to its ideals. But it will make our organizations fairer. It will make our institutions better. In a small but real way, it will make America more perfect.

It’s a good place to start.