This summer, like every summer, thousands of the nation's most ambitious graduate and undergraduate students have descended upon the nation's capital to begin internships at various government agencies. For many of these bright young adults, a summer job at the White House, the State Department or the Treasury is an opportunity to build a resume, network with the politically powerful and have some fun in the process. Many also hope that the experience will lead to a "dream job" after graduation.
At first glance, the mostly mundane tasks of faxing, memo-writing and minor research performed by these government interns would appear no different than the tasks done by summer interns across the country. But there is a difference: Most government-sponsored internships pay nothing.
Summer interns work for the federal government for 12 weeks in exchange for a hope that that experience may lead to an exciting, well-paying job down the road. For this supposed potential benefit, they are out of pocket for a summer's worth of transportation, housing, food and leisure costs. In an expensive city such as Washington, those costs can add up to more than $3,000.
Why can't the government of the world's wealthiest country pay its interns? And how is it that the U.S. government is able to circumvent the minimum-wage laws that it legislated more than 60 years ago?
This practice of not paying interns means that many middle-class and poor students are unable to afford the opportunity to work alongside policymakers in agencies such as the International Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission. By default, the internships favor the wealthy.
Human resource managers might point out that the government does provide paid internships for disadvantaged groups and that some schools provide money to defray the living expenses of students who take public-sector internships. But although statistics on interns are lacking, my guess is that paid interns make up only a small fraction of the intern pool.
It is worrisome that a country that prides itself on providing equal opportunity is supporting an exclusive summer internship program that favors the hiring of the well-off over the middle-class and the poor. Either summer internships should be ended or some form of compensation that at least meets the standards of the nation's minimum-wage law should be offered. If 5,000 interns (which is a high estimate) were paid $3,000 for the summer, the cost of a summer internship program would be $15 million, hardly a dent in a federal budget that was $2.1 trillion in 2003.
It is time for the U.S. government to stop its exclusionary employment practices and give all young people an equal opportunity to be public servants, even if it is only for a summer.
-- Joseph Boesch