A diverse intern-to-member pipeline will lead to a truer representation of our democracy
© Greg Nash

In September 2018, both parties in Congress came together and did the unthinkable, they voted to create a $14 million fund, which now allows Hill internship opportunities for those who can’t afford to work for free.

In a time of deep polarization and gridlock, this move is promising and has the potential to open doors to thousands of working-class Americans and drastically change the make-up of who interns, works and serves in Congress and ultimately what policies are passed for the coming decades.

As a constituent, when you write a letter expressing your concerns on Social Security being cut, call your member of Congress to express support or opposition to a bill, or make the trip to D.C. and want a staff-led tour of the Capitol--its more than likely an unpaid intern completes those tasks. Interns may not have the most glamorous jobs, but they certainly are the first line of defense in any office and ensure operations run smoothly. The key part of being an intern is what comes after, the ability to enter the staffer pipeline.

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House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Speaker Pelosi, it's time to throw American innovators a lifeline Why Americans must tune in to the Trump impeachment hearings MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.) do not have much in common except for one thing, they both got their start as interns in Congress. Internships are often the gateway to full-time positions.

Ask any staffer on the Hill and many of them will tell you that they started off as an intern, be it in D.C., the district office or the member’s campaign. Though up until recently, a majority of the congressional internships were unpaid and that meant only a certain type of person was most likely to take an internship opportunity. Who were they? Those who could afford it. Washington, D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. and with living expenses associated with a three-month internship costing upwards of $4,000, there are only so many individuals who can afford to work for nothing.

The interns who can afford the cost end up being hired, rise up in the ranks as communications directors, policy advisors, chiefs of staff or even make the jump and run for office and are elected. Staff are the eyes, ears and sounding boards for members and it matters who they are and what their experiences are. The data also back it up. According to Professor Nicholas Carnes from Duke University, the working class make up nearly half of the country. However, never more than 2 percent of seats in any Congress were held by a middle-class Americans. When the working class is not at the table as staffers or elected officials, Cartnes’ research suggests that policies end up being crafted to benefit a select few and not all Americans.

Right now, when people can’t afford their internship, they either miss out on the opportunity or have to take a second or third job just to make ends meet. That is why Pay Our Interns waged a multi-year campaign to educate congressional members on how unpaid internships further inequality and the benefits of a diverse intern class. Elected officials such as Rep. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyJustice Democrats official denies that progressives struggle with electability The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg looks to upend Democratic race Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising MORE (D-Mass.) are an example of how an internship can carve your career path. She now holds the seat for the office she first interned while working three other jobs. It underscores the importance of building a diverse intern-to-member pipeline.

When you break down the barriers that block marginalized Americans, such as students of color or those of working-class backgrounds, from interning on the Hill we start to see truer representation of our democracy. In the years to come we will begin to see former interns-turned staff assistants apply for the mid-level jobs and many will trace their beginning to the paid internship opportunity they were given because of this opportunity. It is the responsibility of congressional offices to now make sure that students are aware of these new paid opportunities, and meaningfully engage and recruit students of all backgrounds to apply. Government roles should not be only for those who can afford it or who are connected but rather any individual who shows promise, regardless of their zip code, background or socioeconomic status.

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The work Pay Our Interns is doing may not be evident in drastic diverse change now, but in a few years as the pipeline continues to grow with more diversity, we will continue to see more students transition into full-time roles upon graduation.

Beyond Congress, POI is aiming to show all sectors of the workforce the value in investing in their interns and understanding that this expense increases opportunities for all. No one should be made to go into debt or forfeit an opportunity because it is unpaid. Right now the future Speaker of the House or a future chief of staff is interning on the Hill, building a network and gaining the skills they need to be successful.

Carlos Mark Vera is the co-founder of Pay Our Interns and an Echoing Green Fellow. He previously was an unpaid intern in Congress, the White House and European Parliament. You can reach him at carlos@payourinterns.org or @carlosangeles25 on twitter.