Paying White House interns could change America, says experts

Starting this fall, White House interns will be compensated for the first time in history — something economic experts say is long overdue.

“This is an important signal from the White House in light of current events in the broader American labor movement,” Spelman College Professor of Economics Dr. Suneye Rae Holmes told Yahoo Finance. “By paying interns for their work, the White House is showing that they are responsive to the needs of civil servants at a time when workers across public and private industries are vulnerable and are speaking up about what they need.”

The Biden administration recently announced interns will receive a weekly $750 stipend and be expected to work at least 35 hours a week. The move is one that could help level the playing field for many young Americans who could not previously afford to have a job that is unpaid.

The sweeping change is a groundbreaking effort thanks, in part, to a two-year campaign launched by a former White House intern who knew there had to be a better way. Carlos Mark Vera, who previously interned for the White House and Congress without pay, founded Pay Our Interns in 2016 to ensure interns across all industries were paid.

“We started with Congress because, up until 2017, they were the largest employer of unpaid interns—something like 10,000 interns a year,” Vera told Fortune. “I thought, ‘Things don’t have to be this way; we can reimagine it.’”

First Lady Michelle Obama leads a special screening of “Slumdog Millionaire” for White House Interns. (Photo by Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

Previous administrations received criticism for not paying interns or covering expenses, deterring many qualified young Americans from applying altogether. Nationally, about 40% of internships at for-profit companies in 2021 were unpaid, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“Too often, unpaid federal internships have been a barrier to hardworking and talented students and professionals, preventing them from contributing their talents and skills to the country and holding them back from federal career advancement opportunities,” the White House said in a statement.

According to Tamrat Gashaw, an economics lecturer at Columbia University, paying White House interns and all interns more broadly is the right move because it ultimately promotes equity “to the extent that this move may or can disproportionately impact the participation rate of those historically marginalized from participation in some specific fields. For example, politics/policy making area, because of the unpaid nature of the internship programs in their preferred career path, then such a move encourages them to apply and participate.”

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One to Los Angeles to attend the Summit of the Americas, from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., June 8, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One to Los Angeles to attend the Summit of the Americas, from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., June 8, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The paid internships starting in September will be funded through the $1.5 trillion congressional spending bill that President Biden signed into law in March. That bill allocated about $4.5 million toward the intern pay.

“Paying interns will help remove barriers to equal opportunity for low-income students and first-generation professionals at the beginnings of their careers,” the White House noted.

Previous notable White House interns include Julian Castro, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, Huma Abedin, long-time Hillary Clinton aide, and Fox News host Neil Cavuto.

Policy and economic experts alike are hopeful paying White House interns will be the beginning — one domino of many that will ensure more interns across industries are paid.

Holmes said this move “improves accessibility and the likelihood that future policymakers are representative of American households across class and race primarily. … Other levels of government, not just federal, may follow suit. That could have net positive effects on the economy and the country over time.”

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