Christina Greer is an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University. Alexis Grenell is a political strategist and columnist.
The organizational chart of a presidential campaign is a pyramid. At the top are a few highly paid experts, with a sizable group of workers in the midsection and a glut of volunteers at the bottom.
Unpaid interns, often students, are an island unto themselves. Unlike volunteers, who set their own schedules and enjoy unlimited coffee and appreciation, interns compete for the prestige of working in demanding jobs without pay. In return, these privileged few get to add the experience to their résumés and try to win favor with future employers.
This is a particularly devastating equation for black and Hispanic students, who generally do not have the same financial resources as their white counterparts. A recent Pew Research Center study found that the median wealth of white households is more than 10 times that of Hispanic households and 13 times that of black households. There is a racial divide between students wealthy enough to participate in internship programs and those who lack the financial reserves to do so.
The opportunity gap is further compounded by the crushing amount of debt that leaves 7 out of 10 students an average of $29,000 in the hole when they graduate from college. As a result, unpaid internships calcify the distinct advantages and opportunities enjoyed by children of the white wealthy class.
Yet, although many of the leading candidates for president bemoan the eroding middle class and rising social inequality, they seem to suffer from cognitive dissonance when it comes to unpaid internships.
In August, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton tweeted an application for unpaid interns, requiring a résumé and two letters of reference. Just a few days later, she was posting about the student debt crisis.
On the Republican side, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has called the opportunity gap “the defining issue of our time,” and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has railed against “upward-mobility stagnation.” Like Clinton, both of them have proposals to reduce student debt. Even retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson wants public universities to pay the interest on student loans, while business mogul Donald Trump has accused the federal government of profiting off students.
But of the 16 candidates running for president, only one pays his interns: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), at $10.10 an hour.
We know this because we paid Fordham University student Michaela Finneran $15 an hour to call up the campaigns and inquire about the application process for interns, and the pay.
The results were disturbing.
Carson advertises both paid and unpaid internships, but “paid” just means a food and travel stipend. Students must appear in person for an interview. Former chief executive Carly Fiorina also offers the possibility of a food stipend, not a wage, and applicants must submit a résumé and respond to a series of questions. If students want the honor of working for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), currently polling at less than 3 percent, they’ll have to donate their labor along with a résumé and cover letter. But greatness is its own reward, as Christie believes that income equality will lead to mediocrity. On the other hand, if applicants want to work for Rubio, they should be prepared to submit a résumé, cover letter and references and respond to some short-answer questions. Interns can’t expect any cash, but at least there’s some glory in working for a candidate who is actually ascending in the polls.
Plenty of candidates don’t demand any florid letters of interest to work for free.
Republicans John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, George Pataki and Bush require only a résumé. Although Democrat Martin O’Malley also requires a résumé, unlike his Republican rivals he actually supports an increase in the minimum wage, if no wage for his interns.
Trump does not advertise any internships, and his campaign did not return calls requesting information. Much like his quixotic run, his policy remains a mystery. To be fair, the billionaire pays his Trump Entertainment Resorts interns $10 an hour.
Whoever wins, the next president will likely follow the pipeline of free labor all the way to the White House, where interns are, of course, unpaid. The issue is truly nonpartisan, as neither the Democratic nor Republican national committee pays its interns, although summer interns for the RNC do get a $100-a-week stipend.
Unpaid internships are not unique to politics. Other high-status industries, such as fashion, media and film, also rely on free labor. And young people flock to them for the experience and chance to network, build résumés and learn the hard and soft skills of an industry.
But democracy is supposed to be about inclusion. The opportunity to participate should not be reserved for those who can afford it. However, the cost of participation continues to disadvantage segments of our country, particularly people of color and those without family wealth. If candidates don’t understand that, then they cannot help but continue to perpetuate the racial and economic inequality they claim to oppose.