The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
The big idea
When it comes to paid congressional internships, white students get more than their fair share, but Black and Latino students don’t get enough.
That is the key finding of a new report I co-authored with Tiffany Win and Carlos Mark Vera for Pay Our Interns, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is pushing to increase the number of paid internships in various sectors.
These racial disparities come despite 2018 legislation that provides House and Senate offices with allowances exclusively for paid internships. I investigated whom congressional offices hired with these allowances during the first year that this funding was available in 2019.
I found that while white students make up only 56% of undergraduate college students nationwide, they accounted for 76% of paid interns in Congress. In contrast, Black and Latino students make up 14% and 19% of all undergraduates, respectively, but accounted for only 6.7% and 7.9% of paid congressional interns, respectively.
Why it matters
Racial representation among paid congressional internships is important because internships often lead to paid staff positions. In a 2020 study of congressional staff, over 50% indicated that they started their careers on Capitol Hill as interns. Accordingly, if people of color are underrepresented among paid congressional interns, they will similarly be underrepresented among legislative staff.
That matters because congressional staff are important behind-the-scenes actors in making American law. They provide critical advice, guidance and analysis to lawmakers. Congressional staffers are also involved in nearly all dimensions of legislative work, from coming up with ideas to providing services for constituents to the oversight of the federal government and day-to-day operations of the legislature.
If the only staffers in the room advising members of Congress on policymaking decisions are white, then the policies this nation makes may not be as richly informed as they would otherwise be.
In addition, congressional employment provides a stepping stone to elected office. Today, the highest-ranking women in government, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both began their political careers as congressional interns.
When people get firsthand experience with how American democracy works, it better enables them to see themselves as leaders and public servants.
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What still isn’t known
While our report examines the racial makeup of paid congressional interns, Congress does not collect or publish data on unpaid interns. To this end, it’s not known how many unpaid interns there are or the racial makeup of this group. Some congressional offices may pay their interns with funding beyond the allowances they get for interns, but we don’t believe many do.
There are still a lot of unknowns about who works in Congress. My future research will continue to examine racial representation among congressional staff and the mechanisms that lead to racial inequities on Capitol Hill. I also plan to continue to urge Congress to adopt more transparent hiring practices so that this problem can be better understood.
How we do our work
We analyzed congressional payroll data, which provides the names of every paid intern. From the list of people who interned in Congress between April and September 2019, Pay Our Interns researchers conducted an online search for photographs, social backgrounds and past employment data of all interns. We obtained data from a variety of sources, including Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter. We collected racial demographic data for 96% of Senate interns and 95% of House interns.