Raise The Minimum Wage! Be My Unpaid Intern!

Many Congressional Democrats both campaign for a higher minimum wage and employ interns at less than the existing minimum wage, many for no pay at all.

Jim Swift notes that a lot of Congressional Democrats both campaign for a higher minimum wage and employ interns at less than the existing minimum wage, many for no pay at all.  Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown are two famous examples.

Virginia’s Lacy Clay Jr. is less well known but the hypocrisy is funnier.

Says Jim:

Am I against unpaid internships? Not at all. Should Clay be able to offer them? Of course he should. Virtually all Capitol Hill offices offer unpaid internships or ones with stipends below the minimum wage. Campaigns are the same way.

Betsy had a plethora of paid and unpaid internships. I volunteered politically a lot in my youth, but was never officially an intern anywhere. Unpaid internships are fine. Jobs/apprenticeships below the minimum wage are fine, too. What’s not fine, in my view, is government mandating pay or making standards for what qualifies for paid or unpaid work. Especially when government is held to a different standard than the “for-profit” private sector employers.

The Pelosi video examines what is the difference between “volunteering” to work in an internship below minimum wage, versus choosing to take a position with pay below minimum wage at a McDonald’s.  Pelosi says there isn’t one while the videographer says they’re not different at all. Opinions obviously vary, but why are people prevented from choosing to work below minimum wage in the private sector but not the public sector?

Gee, I wonder, on a related note, why teenagers have such a hard time finding work?

If what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, Clay should pay all of his interns the minimum wage or change his position on it. That’s just hypocritical in my view. The minimum wage he championed isn’t helping women and minorities, whom his vote was purported to help, who are seeking internships in his office.

Work for free to get the experience to get a job in D.C. or you’d be hard pressed to find a job in government. How is that different than if McDonald’s wanted to require a probationary period for potential new employees? Not very different at all.

I’m actually queasy about unpaid internships, even though the non-profit that I work for relies on them heavily and I’ve used them myself.  They’re ingrained in the Washington culture and doubtless provide a very valuable experience for the interns, so I don’t worry that they’re somehow being “exploited.”  The problem is that having done one or more internships is a virtual requirement for getting one’s foot in the door and this tends to perpetuate a system where those from the Washington-New York corridor, particularly those with wealthy parents, have a double advantage.  But it is what it is.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tano says:

    “particularly those with wealthy parents, have a double advantage.”

    Yes, that is what it is. Which is why Jim’s position is so infuriating and wrong. Those who work in real minimum wage jobs are not wealthy, well-educated people investing some of their time to get their foot in the door at the start of a prosperous career. They are people who are struggling to make ends meet, and are ripe for exploitation. If allowed to do so, businesses would pay them as little as possible, given the realities of the labor market, not the realities of what one needs to live a human life.

    It is blind stupidity to equate the two situations.

  2. James Joyner says:


    It’s fair to say, I think, that people wouldn’t be lining up for “janitorial internships.” OTOH, not every job is worth enough to the employer to pay enough to raise a family on.

    Not all that long ago, teenagers used to bag groceries, work at fast food joints, and similar extremely low skill jobs. They were typically paid very little but it provided spending money to keep gas in the car, buy comic books, take the girlfriend to the movies, and so forth. The parents, typically, were taking care of the big ticket items like food, clothing, and shelter.

    Somewhere along the way — within my memory — those jobs shifted from teens to adults. The value of those jobs didn’t increase. But, if you’re going to have to pay an adult wage, you may as well hire an adult. You are likely, however, to hire fewer of them.