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Unpaid Jobs in D.C. Are Creating an Aristocracy?

Unpaid Jobs in D.C. Are Creating an Aristocracy?

My grandfather once took me for a walk. I was eight years old, and it was a beautiful spring day in Peru. In the middle of the street, we saw a mom and two children selling candies outside a restaurant. I asked my grandfather how we could help them. He answered that simply giving them money was not enough; we must teach them how to gain it. I did not know it at the time, but my grandfather was teaching me the concept of  “equality of opportunity.” 

Education and access to opportunities are fundamental to social change and economic mobility. In economics,  it is understood that we all do not start from the same point and that we have imperfect information. Not all of us are going to have equal access to information when it comes to finding a job or being prepared to apply to one. As a low-income, first-generation student, I could not afford to work an unpaid position for the summer. However, through scholarships, savings, and borrowing money from relatives, I am financing my stay in D.C. and working an internship. Not all college students have the same resources that I have, such as mentors or the understanding of how to apply to scholarships. Most college students that not come from less fortunate families would not consider an unpaid internship, regardless of the future opportunities. 

On the other hand, those people who received the right information and can afford to live without a steady income will benefit from a better set of skills, training, and network. These opportunities will ultimately lead them to have more chances to find a job at Capitol Hill or at other institutions in D.C. Economic rules are evident here. There is a high demand for opportunities within the political industry. College students from all over the country are willing to work for free, so they can solidify their career and compete. Rules of demand and supply are applicable: the market will exclude those who can not meet the laws of competition. The rules that apply for the market also apply for politics and jobs on the Hill. 

The main issue is how high levels of competition for these jobs are creating an incentive for people to work for free, leading to an aristocracy. The rules of these types of jobs benefit those with monetary means but exclude those who can not afford to live without at least the minimum wage. Those are, of course, the students who belong to the lowest socioeconomic class. In the short term, there are not many differences between people who work a job in the summer and people who do not. However, the accumulation of job skills and expansion of one’s network will give more opportunities in the long term to those individuals who have had previous experiences, even if unpaid. 

Malcolm Gladwell analyzes this phenomenon of accumulation of opportunity and sociology of success through many examples in his book Outliers. In his book, he explains the success stories of some spectacular people. Many successful people have been afforded certain privileges since they were children. Bill Gates had a chance to work with computers since a young age; the early exposure helped him to become the person that he is today. The same principle can be applied to college students that are interning in D.C. over the summer.

Free markets guarantee that people can engage in commerce and be capable of working with each other; however, we did not start this race from the same position. Personal choice is critical to understand decisions that can benefit the whole community but also relevant is the environment from which you come. The interns that can afford to work in D.C. for the summer are following their desire to seize power and influence in the future. They will be working in politics, think tanks, or other governmental institutions in the Capitol. However, to reach more representation of all the different groups of people we have in the United States, we must invest in people who have not been part of the political conversation. Our differences make us great. We are building the future of America, and we need to rely on  people who understand the different problems of our communities.

Works Cited:

Beckett, Andy. “Intern Nation by Ross Perlin – Review.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 May 2011,

Gale, Rebecca. “The Plight of the Unpaid Intern.” Roll Call, 14 June 2013,

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.

Lurie, Stephen. “How Washington Abandoned America's Unpaid Interns.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 4 Nov. 2013,

Matthews, Dylan. “Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 June 2013,

Thompson, Derek. “In Defense of Unpaid Internships.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 11 May 2012,

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