How Unpaid Internships Reinforce the Racial Wealth Gap

How Unpaid Internships Reinforce the Racial Wealth Gap

When discussing racism in the United States, few statistics are more revealing than the racial wealth gap. According to the Economic Policy Institute, median household wealth for white families is 12 times higher than that of black families. This disparity makes it much harder for black households to weather crises like unemployment or medical emergencies, or to invest in the future. And while there are many drivers of this gap, often neglected is the role of unpaid internships, which have grown steadily more pervasive in recent years.   

Between 500,000 and one million Americans intern for free every year, including as many as half of all graduating college seniors. And with good reason: Studies show that internship experience enhances marketability in the job search, with 60 percent of employers expressing preference for hiring applicants with internships on their resume according to one survey. Some 90 percent of employers say students should have one or two internships before they graduate.

Exploitation in these programs is rife and under the Trump administration, it’s only gotten worse. Early last year, the Labor Department rolled out new guidelines for unpaid internships, thereby making it easier for companies to employ workers without paying them. And unlike traditional workers, unpaid interns are not covered by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Civil Rights Act. In fact, outside of Oregon, New York City, and Washington, D.C., they’re not protected against sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Even so, internships have increasingly become a critical gatekeeper in many growing industries, one that often shuts out low-income and minority applicants. A 2016 report from Intern Bridge, an internship research and consulting firm, found that women were 77 percent more likely to be engaged in an unpaid internship than men. Another report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that students in majoring in more diverse fields like journalism, fashion merchandising, and human development were more likely to apply for unpaid internships than students in majors dominated by white males, such as business, engineering, and computer science.

Lacking significant household wealth, families of color in particular often struggle to ensure their child doesn’t go into debt for college or working an unpaid internship. As a result, these students leave school with a less comprehensive resume than their peers who were able to take various internships throughout college.

One area where this barrier is at least beginning to erode is Congress, where unpaid internships have long been pervasive—on both side of the aisle. A 2017 report from my organization, Pay Our Interns, found that only 8 percent of Republican House representatives and 3 percent of Democratic reps actually pay their interns. Last year, the House and Senate passed spending bills that included intern pay for the first time. Yet even with this protection, NPR reports that many members of Congress have been slow to advertise internships with pay, instead waiting for federal guidelines to appear on using the new appropriations. And away from Capitol Hill, unpaid internships remain commonplace in government at the federal, state, and local level. 

Experts have identified increasing incomes of black people as one of the critical ways to narrow the wealth gap. While addressing income disparities, it’s essential that we simultaneously address the current inequitable structure that students use to build experience. Unpaid internships only further opportunities for those who can afford to take them, while leaving those who can’t behind. Dismantling the unpaid internships structure is just one of the multiple steps that need to be taken to accomplish racial and economic equality and one that the federal government should play.

No student should be forced to take out a loan to intern at the White House. Internships are the backbone of successful careers; they provide students with the foundation for a successful career in their respective industry. Unpaid opportunities essentially block a subset of students from applying and weaken their starting salary outcomes after graduation.