Do Unpaid Internships Reflect and Perpetuate Socio-Economic Inequlity?

In a July 1 editorial, the editorial team analyzed the nexus of education and experience in unpaid internships, another thought occurred to me.  We focused on the question of whether unpaid internships are just, based on the practical benefit and the legal argument concerning wage laws. 

We believe that they are, and that unpaid internships “build a solid structure on the foundation provided by theoretical knowledge.”  But I wonder whether they may also be one more reflection of socio-economic inequality. 

I started thinking about this when a friend of mine, who studied international relations, had trouble getting a job after college, even though he went to George Washington University in DC.  Part of the reason is that he wasn’t able to do any internships while in college because he had to work year round to pay for his tuition. 

And it occurred to me that there is an assumed premise to the entire discussion of unpaid internships: that the intern can afford to work for free for an extended period of time.  Those of us who have done unpaid internships were blessed with schools that had special programs (like the one I did in DC) or savings that allow us to pay rent while living in an expensive city, or parents who have the resources to support us for a time. 

And those internships are generally not in Wichita or Schenectady.  They are in Washington, DC, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, cities with very expensive rent and a very high cost of living.  Thus, the entire internship infrastructure is based on the premise that interns will have the financial wherewithal to afford this venture, which is increasingly becoming the primary criteria for hiring. 

Getting a job in politics (as I can attest to), finance, business, or other hyper-competitive fields is very difficult.  Internships, and the connections you make there, have become more important than the school you went to or your GPA.  

A recent Washington Post article describes the difficulties faced by high-performing students from low-performing inner-city DC schools who go off to college.  The author states that, “Past valedictorians of low-performing District high schools say their own transitions to college were eye-opening and at times ego-shattering, filled with revelations that — despite taking their public schools’ most difficult classes and acing them — they were not equipped to excel at the nation’s top colleges.”

This is a reflection of many fundamental problems with both the education system and social structure in inner-cities.  Schools are underfunded, teachers are either tenured or very young and inexperienced (Teach For America, for instance), and teachers “teach to the test” because test scores are often the only metric of improving schools. 

Low-performing schools fail to adequately prepare even their most successful students for the rigors of the classroom, while at the same time, their socio-economic status makes it much more difficult for them to participate in the “internship culture.”  Thus, the popularity and status of unpaid internships is yet another reflection of the inequality that pervades our culture. 

But take it one step further.  Not only does the culture of unpaid internships reflect socio-economic inequality, it also helps perpetuate this inequality.  Inner-city schools are failing, students are not prepared for higher education, and their socio-economic status makes it almost impossible for many to afford unpaid internships. 

The result, essentially, is that the implicit standard for low-income people is higher.  They are either expected to do unpaid internships while working another job to pay for it or they are expected to be such higher quality as to not need to do an unpaid internship. 

The lengths that low-income people must go to reach the apex of business, finance, or politics are more extreme than those of use more blessed by economic stability and often entirely impossible.  Unpaid internships have become the latest reflection of this reality, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of poverty.

Does this mean that unpaid internships are fundamentally wrong?  I don’t think so.  The problem is more systemic.  But when thinking about unpaid internships, we shouldn’t just question their validity because we are working as free labor.  We should also think about the fundamental inequality that they have come to reflect and perpetuate.  

-Chris Hartline graduated from Houghton College in 2012 with a degree in history and political science