The White House. (Ron Edmonds/Associated Press)

EACH SUMMER in the District, everyone in government seems to go on vacation — everyone, that is, except the interns. They come from colleges and cities across the country to work at think tanks, congressional offices and even the White House. They answer phones, mark up memos and go fact-fishing in endless archives. In many ways, they keep the city running over the summer. Most of them do it for no pay.

Meanwhile, employers of college graduates increasingly look not only for college credentials but also for extracurricular experience, so unpaid internships have become the new normal for job-seeking students. Which is fine for young people who can afford to work for nothing. For many students and their families, though, that isn’t an option. Unpaid internships become another lever that widens inequality, reduces diversity in the workplace and gives the well-off a leg up in the job market.

The law generally requires for-profit companies, but not nonprofits or government, to pay their interns. Perhaps most egregiously, White House interns leave 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. every spring, summer and fall with padded résumés but empty pockets — even under an administration that prides itself on protecting the most vulnerable among us. The administration should change this.

Some have suggested that internship programs should draw on federal funding through existing student aid programs for those who could not work without help. Charitable contributions could also make a difference. Finding budgetary room for sufficient salaries might be difficult, yet that’s no reason not to try.

When asked about its program, the White House declined to comment and instead referred us to two speeches. The addresses, from President Obama to groups of young African and Asian leaders, offer no justification. They note only that the president meets with his interns at the end of their terms to reward them with words of wisdom.

“If you had to choose when to be born,” Mr. Obama said in one of the speeches, “now would be the time. Because the world . . . offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history.” The White House and its peers should try harder to make sure that kind of opportunity is available to everyone who wants to serve.