Intern pay was supposed to boost diversity in Congress. Most of the money went to white students

Private universities were also overrepresented, new report finds

“Race is an organizing factor for how the congressional workplace operates,” says James Jones, a co-author of a new report for the nonprofit Pay Our Interns.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“Race is an organizing factor for how the congressional workplace operates,” says James Jones, a co-author of a new report for the nonprofit Pay Our Interns. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 22, 2021 at 1:41pm

When Congress decided to start paying its interns a couple of years ago, Carlos Mark Vera figured his work on Capitol Hill was done.

“When that fund passed, I was like, OK, awesome, let’s move on to the next thing,” said Vera, co-founder of Pay Our Interns.

The group had pushed and prodded lawmakers until they agreed to allocate $20,000 to each House office and about $50,000 to each Senate office annually for intern pay, starting in 2019. It would go a long way toward closing the intern diversity gap, Vera hoped.

Instead, the people getting paid internships were overwhelmingly white, the group found in a new report — 76 percent white, compared to just 52 percent of the national undergraduate population. Black and Latino students were underrepresented, comprising 15 percent and 20 percent of undergraduates nationally but just 6.7 percent and 7.9 percent of paid Hill interns.

Congressional staffers aren’t as diverse as the nation they serve, and the problem starts with the lowly intern. While interns rarely have much impact on lawmaking, they often go on to more important positions that can actually affect legislation. 

Vera started Pay Our Interns in 2016, after his own unpaid stints on the Hill. The pay-your-dues culture around unpaid internships makes it harder for poorer kids to get their feet in the door. That disproportionately affects minorities. Black families on average have less than 15 percent the wealth of white families, and Hispanics averaged less than 20 percent. 

To combat that, Vera’s group demands what its name says: Pay interns. Congress was its first target, but the group’s aim is broader. All interns should get paid, Vera said, and the group’s next focus will be getting federal agencies to pony up.

The racial makeup of congressional interns matches that of Congress itself, said James Jones, a sociology professor at Rutgers University-Newark and the report’s main author.

“I’m not surprised that Congress is white-dominated, right from the top or the bottom,” he said.

While Democrats hired more interns of color than Republicans, white members mostly employed white students regardless of party.

“The main driver here is race,” Jones said. “Race is an organizing factor for how the congressional workplace operates.” 

“Members of color are doing the heavy lifting of hiring … diverse office staff,” he added. “We see this [with] interns, and we see this amongst congressional staffers more broadly.”

The report also found that half of Capitol Hill’s paid interns attended private universities, even though just a quarter of U.S. undergrads do. Democrats were more prone to hiring private school kids, a disparity Jones said he wants to look into more.

The researchers also tracked exactly where the interns went to school. Washington-area schools dominated among private universities: American, Georgetown, George Washington and Howard were the top four, with 145, 92, 77 and 34 interns, respectively. After them, the nation’s most elite schools made up the remainder — the only Ivy League schools not in the top 15 were Princeton and Dartmouth.

Women outnumbered the men, making up 56 percent of interns in the Senate and 51.3 percent in the House, but that reflects the gender makeup of the nation’s colleges, where 57 percent of undergrads are women.

Jones and his team combed through more than 8,500 pages of payroll data from every Senate and House office to compile the report, which provides a snapshot of who Congress hired as an intern between April and September 2019. It follows his survey of House offices released last year that estimated similar disparities.  

Jones noted a caveat to the otherwise comprehensive report: It doesn’t include unpaid internships, which still exist, or fellowships funded by outside organizations. That means the data excludes interns placed through groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute or the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Jones said that shouldn’t detract from the troubling findings.

“In many ways, this is Congress officially sanctioning and legitimizing inequality — legitimizing a workplace that is really unrepresentative of the population that it governs,” he said.

Still, things are improving, Vera said.

“We found 875 Black, brown, Asian American Pacific Islander and Native American interns that were paid,” he said. “That was not a thing a couple of years ago. So, there is progress being made.”

While paying interns is a start, the report argues they need to be paid more. The average intern pay was $1,986.75 in the Senate and $1,612.53 in the House, for stints that normally run five and seven weeks, respectively. Monthly rent for a barebones studio apartment in D.C. alone can run $1,600, leaving no money for other costs.

While the House has already increased the intern pay allotments to $25,000 per office and loosened some of the rules around how the money can be spent — allowing some of it to go to district office interns — Vera said more needs to be done. The congressional stipends should at least be competitive with what private groups like the CHCI provide: $3,125 for a summer, plus housing and travel to D.C. Vera also wants congressional committees to get intern pay allotments — currently, it’s just the personal and leadership offices that can use the fund.   

Congress also needs to step up its efforts to track demographic data, Jones said: “The issue really here is about transparency and how Congress operates.”

“That is what really distinguishes Congress from other types of workplaces and allows it to be white-dominated,” he said, noting that lawmakers force federal agencies to track employees’ demographic data but exempted themselves from the same requirements.

That should change, thanks to an amendment California Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar added to last year’s spending omnibus directing the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer to track intern demographics and pay information.

In one regard, the internship funding has been a runaway success: 96 percent of Senate offices paid at least one intern, as did 92.5 percent of House offices, a huge leap from four years ago. “Until late 2017, Congress was the largest employer of unpaid interns in the country,” Vera said.