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Diversity on Capitol Hill starts with paying interns

I was an unpaid Capitol Hill intern. I had to work two part-time jobs to make rent.

Capitol Hill
Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Five years ago, I secured my dream internship: a position on Capitol Hill working for a senior Texas Congress member. What I didn’t expect was that to make my summer in Washington a reality, I’d be taking out student loans and working two additional part-time jobs. I served as a bartender at night and worked retail on the weekends just to make my full-time and unpaid role possible.

I’d always thought the hardest part about one of these exclusive congressional internships would be getting it. What I learned is that the much more challenging piece is doing what it takes to keep it. Unless you have the financial means to make an unpaid internship work, Washington, DC, might not be for you.

Many young people who aspire to work in public service find that being able to afford to live in Washington can be even tougher than getting the job on Capitol Hill itself. Inc. Magazine ranked Washington the fifth least affordable city in the United States, demanding an average salary of more than $90,000 to live comfortably.

The problem is especially pronounced for congressional interns, who for nearly 25 years universally went without pay. I was one of them.

It’s rare for someone like me — coming from a single-parent household with no political connections — to be able to land such a coveted position. I was beyond excited to finally get a chance to explore what my passion for politics looked like in the real world. But my enthusiasm quickly turned to anxiety upon learning the internship was unpaid.

The costs of interning in DC for a summer can total up to $10,000, including an apartment, travel, professional clothing, metro cards, food, and course credit. For students coming from low-income households like mine, an unpaid internship just isn’t in the cards.

After leaving my congressional office, where I interned for 40 hours per week, I would walk across the street to my job at a local bar. I often worked until 1 in the morning. Weekends were for both morning and afternoon shifts at J.Crew. The job served two purposes: an hourly wage and discounts on the professional clothing I needed for the Hill. I would leave J.Crew, grab a quick bite, and head back to the bar for my shift. I’d think about taking an Uber or Lyft home but ultimately opt to walk once I realized the cost of a ride was equal to an hour of work.

While I worked nights and weekends, completely burnt out before I even arrived at the office on Monday mornings, I also missed out on key intern experiences, like grabbing lunch with co-workers, attending policy briefings, and networking after work hours. Meanwhile, my more affluent peers — who I soon learned made up the bulk of the congressional interns — had time at the end of the day to network and get ahead.

One night, when I did manage to join a group of fellow interns for dinner, I learned just how different my experience was from that of my peers. As my co-workers ordered fancy entrées like steak or pasta with cocktails, I opted for a $12 appetizer (no drink) to save money. When the bill came, everyone expected to split the check, totaling more than $50 per person. I asked our server to put my appetizer on a separate check, prompting confused looks from my fellow interns, who were apparently shocked that I didn’t have the money.

I was equally confused by their assumptions that we all had extra cash to spend on expensive meals on a regular weeknight. I was embarrassed, and concerned that I’d be excluded from future networking and bonding opportunities if I couldn’t afford to dine out at high-end restaurants on a regular basis. Dinner aside, most networking meetings were held over coffee or cocktails, where the bill can add up quickly.

Despite these discouraging moments, I completed my internship and turned my passion for policymaking into a paid staff position on the Hill. That’s the advantage a congressional internship offers — an inside shot at getting a job in Washington. But most low-income students like me will not get that opportunity because they can’t afford to get here in the first place.

I believe America’s political system is more effective when it becomes the representative body it was created to be. When we don’t invest in the congressional staffing pipeline, we end up with a congressional workforce that doesn’t reflect the socioeconomic diversity of the country. We wind up staffing Congress only with people who come from money.

That’s why funding for internships is imperative — because your family’s income bracket shouldn’t dictate whether you’re able to pursue a career in public service.

Thankfully, the government is starting to pay attention. Earlier this year, my organization worked with other policy advocates to speak out about the need for legislative branch funding to pay Capitol Hill interns. In response, the House and the Senate worked with President Trump this year to add $14 million in new funding. We expect the first interns to be paid this January. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also promised to pay each of her interns $15 an hour.

But while it’s a solid start, it’s not enough to fully address the financial challenges that low-income students who want to intern on the Hill will face. Even with pay, interns will still be forced to fork over much of the $10,000 required for a summer internship, a sum that isn’t in the cards for many. Going forward, Congress will need to explore solutions to help these students find the money they need either through public-private partnerships or through work with nonprofits and foundations.

A talented student who aspires to work in public service should never be shut out because he or she can’t afford an apartment in the nation’s capital. By making it possible for young, diverse leaders to get a foot in the door, we can help the next generation kick-start their careers and build a Congress that works better for everyone.

Audrey Henson is the founder and CEO of College to Congress, a nonprofit building a more inclusive and effective Congress by empowering the next generation of public servants. They do this by recruiting, training, and providing scholarships to Pell Grant-eligible students to intern in Congress while connecting hundreds of other students from lower- and middle-class backgrounds to positions on the Hill.

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