In news that won’t come as a surprise to many, a new study from a D.C.-based advocacy organization, Pay Our Interns has found that most young adults interning in congressional offices are white.
In a review of more than 8,500 pages of payroll data tracking interns who had paid positions between April and September of 2019, the organization found that individuals getting paid internships were overwhelmingly white. While 52% of undergraduates nationally identify as white, 76% of congressional interns were white, the group’s research showed. Black and Latinx students were especially underrecognized, comprising just 6.7 and 7.9% of paid Capitol Hill interns, respectively, the group said.
The finding represented an ongoing problem in our nation’s capital, experts say.
“Congressional staffers aren’t as diverse as the nation they serve, and the problem starts with the lowly intern,” reported Jim Saksa of the congressional watchdog news tracker, Roll Call. “While interns rarely have much impact on lawmaking, they often go on to more important positions that can actually affect legislation.”
Carlos Mark Vera started the political intern advocacy group, Pay Our Interns in 2016 after his own experience working as an unpaid intern in D.C. And he has said he’s not shocked that the “pay-your-dues culture around unpaid internships makes it harder for poorer kids to get their feet in the door” — especially when studies show that, on average, Black and Latinx families have 15% to 20% less wealth than white families.
James Jones, a sociology professor at Rutgers University-Newark agrees. Jones worked with Pay Our Interns on the study and was the report’s main author.
“I’m not surprised that Congress is white-dominated, right from the top or the bottom,” he told Saksa.
According to Saksa, even though Democrats tend to hire more interns of color than Republicans, white members of congress mostly employ white interns, regardless of their political party.
“We found 875 Black, brown, Asian American Pacific Islander and Native American interns that were paid,” Vera said. “That was not a thing a couple of years ago. So, there is progress being made.”
Jones said that while the improvement of inclusion efforts in recent years makes him hopeful, his and Vera’s findings indicate a clear need for improved data transparency and accountability within government offices and agencies.
“The issue really here is about transparency and how Congress operates,” Jones said. “That is what really distinguishes Congress from other types of workplaces and allows it to be white-dominated,” noting that while lawmakers force federal agencies to track employee demographic data, they themselves are exempt from the same requirements.
According to Saksa, the lack of transparency could soon 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.”