Morgan White knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down but could barely afford.
It was the fall of 2012, and the then-23-year-old Georgia native and Hampton University graduate had just landed an internship on Capitol Hill, working for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). But White and her family couldn’t afford for her to move to D.C., find housing, and then work — unpaid — for four to five months.
“People just outright told me, you probably shouldn’t take it,” White said.
White’s family reached deep into their networks, eventually finding a family friend who lived in Alexandria, Va., who could house her for the duration of the internship. The week before White’s family drove her from Atlanta to D.C., her mother baked her “probably 12 pans” of lasagna.
“We cut and froze each piece. So every day for lunch on the Hill, that’s what I ate. I didn’t have enough money for the cafeteria,” White, who is Black, said.
Despite the financial restrictions, she says, working for Lewis remains one of the best experiences of her life.
For many young people of color, unpaid internships in politics simply aren’t an option. Paid internship opportunities remain few and far between, despite increasing diversity among elected officials. A recent report from the advocacy group Pay Our Interns (POI) finds that the people of color are far less likely to land paid internships compared to their White counterparts.
The report analyzed payroll data on the more than 3,800 interns working for members of Congress between April and September 2019. It found that three-quarters of all paid opportunities went to White candidates.
This is out of step with nationwide statistics for Gen Z and Millennials, the age groups that would be filling these roles. Nationwide, non-Hispanic White people comprise a little more than half of the national undergraduate student population.
The report also found that students who attended or graduated from private universities were overrepresented among the paid intern corps, particularly these three D.C. schools: American, Georgetown and George Washington universities.
The movement to pay interns is still relatively new. The POI study notes that before 2017, only 10 percent of congressional interns were paid. The following year, Congress passed a bill allocating $20,000 to each House office, while each Senate office received funds based on their state’s population.
POI data shows that 90 percent of offices used the fund in 2019, said Carlos Vera, the organization’s executive director and co-founder. By not using those funds to help support interns of color, Congress is maintaining a status quo in which many of its offices still don’t reflect the diversity of their constituencies.
Not only that, said Vera, but the lack of opportunities for women of color, specifically, puts them at a deficit in terms of their pay and building their careers.
“The whole point of this fund is to radically change the demographics of Congress,” said Vera.
The criteria for receiving a paid versus nonpaid internship is murky, and determined by each individual office. Payments can be in the form of stipends, paid at varying times during the internship. Some offices, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) pay interns an hourly rate (Ocasio-Cortez’s site says interns are compensated at $15 an hour).
Because there is no universal standard on how to use the fund or the rates at which interns should be paid, it’s hard to hold offices accountable for not hiring more interns from diverse backgrounds.
“It’s 541 kingdoms,” said Vera, referring to the number of congressional offices on the Hill.
Several former interns noted that interns and other staffers of color tend to be concentrated in specific offices — an observation that lined up with the study, which found that non-White House members employed nearly half of all paid interns of color.
Elizabeth Dos Santos, who interned for then-Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in 2016, said her internship was her very first office job. As a first-generation college student raised by a Cuban mother and Brazilian father, Dos Santos was placed in the role through the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, which provided a stipend and housing close to the Hill.
Dos Santos, who is originally from Miami but spent much of her life in North Carolina, said she felt immediately at ease in the diverse office.
“I felt right at home, although I was an intern,” she said.
The position was the bridge between her former job working at an ice cream shop — work she took when she was 15 to help support her family — to her current role as an executive assistant and legislative aide to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). During her time on the Hill, her mom was able to send her a bit of extra cash if she needed to buy a nice shirt from Marshall’s, Dos Santos said, but the stipend was essential to her being able to take the position.
Studies have shown that Black and Latino families have accrued much less generational wealth than White households; this lack of financial stability can make it more difficult to support younger family members if they need to move to pursue a job opportunity, much less take on months of unpaid labor in an expensive city.
Treasure Arthur, now a senior consultant at Deloitte, took a paid internship in Lewis’s office in January 2013. Her interest was fiscal policy, and because Lewis served on the House Ways and Means Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation paired Arthur with the congressman.
Arthur received $1,000 a month, in addition to having her housing covered. She shared a one-bedroom apartment with three other women, working 40 hours a week, as well as attending mandatory CBCF programs.
“I wouldn’t have been able to obtain part-time work while doing that particular internship,” Arthur, who is Black, said.
When her paid internship was up, Arthur, at the time a recent Emory University graduate, continued working in the office, unpaid, as she searched for a job.
She racked up $20,000 in credit card debt over the course of 2013, during which she spent 6 months interning. She’s still paying it off today. This shapes the advice she gives interns who come to Congress: They qualify for food stamps and affordable housing, and they can tap those programs if they need them.
“They kind of have to get out of that student mind-set into a ‘I’m a low-income worker’ mind-set,” she said.
She also noted that the dearth of women of color in staffing roles, especially well-paid ones, at the time also prompted her to hunt for work outside of Congress. It wasn’t exactly a ceiling, Arthur said, but the lack of representation made her wonder if the “the juice was worth the squeeze.”
Dos Santos, the former intern for Ros-Lethinen, noted that the internship pipeline wasn’t just important for future staffing. It’s an important part of political engagement, and it could increase civic knowledge among certain communities of color, who may already feel more disconnected from the political process.
“We have to get out of the beltway,” said CHLI president Mary Ann Gomez Orta. She advocated more targeted outreach from offices with diverse constituencies, noting that many people outside of D.C. aren’t aware such paid opportunities exist.
“We all know someone who missed out on an opportunity because what they really wanted is an internship and the employer didn’t offer a paid internship,” said Gomez Orta. “We all missed out on that person’s contribution. We are turning our back on wonderful students who could offer so much.”
White, the former Lewis intern, wishes there were more direct outreach to communities of color, including outside of elite, private universities. As it stands, the congressional internship program was “never designed for students of color,” she said.
“You just have to be very well supported to do that opportunity and to do it in a way that will ultimately benefit you,” she said.
White knows that some people may look at her months of eating frozen lasagna as a sort of character-building exercise: a necessary paying of dues. White, who is now co-director of the Birth Equity Advocacy Project, said she just doesn’t see a reason for students to continue to go through what she went through.
“That is so unrealistic and it’s so not practical. And I honestly, if I didn’t have to work that hard, I possibly could have had even more experiences.”