Unpaid internships hurt mobility

In his excellent piece in today’s New York Times on the declining economic mobility of Americans, Jason DeParle mentions a commentary by Reihan Salam for the National Review Online, “Should we care about relative mobility?

Salam disputes that there’s anything wrong in the natural tendency of economically successful families to give their children special advantages in the competition for jobs, education and other resources. He admits, however, that affluent white families may have social networks that blacks cannot access and that protect whites, but not blacks, from downward mobility. Salam writes:

“To be sure, there might be an incumbent-protection story here, as Scott [Winship] has suggested. That is, it is possible that non-black families in the top three-[fifths] of the income distribution are giving their children advantages that protect them from scrappy upstarts in ways that might damage our growth prospects. That really is a legitimate concern.”

The particular mechanism Salam identifies – internships — is one that EPI has identified as a serious problem for the economic mobility of minorities and for the labor market in general.  Salam recognizes that internships are sometimes reserved for the affluent: “Moreover, parents who have achieved some success tend to be part of social networks that can give their children access to valuable economic opportunities. Even the most committed egalitarian won’t deny her daughter the opportunity to take an internship with a beloved friend and colleague just because other children won’t get the same leg up.”

Unpaid internships, in particular, exclude students from poorer families who can’t afford to work for nothing for a summer or a semester, especially after they graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. The children of affluent families, on the other hand, can afford to live in the most expensive cities in the U.S., such as New York and Washington, making contacts, building their resumes, and sometimes even learning skills, while their parents pay for their room and board, travel and entertainment. Before even taking into account the family connections that reserve some of the best opportunities for the sons and daughters of the affluent, the $4,000-$5,000 cost of, for example, moving to Washington and living for 10 weeks prevents almost any working class kid from taking an unpaid internship.

As Ross Perlin points out in his meticulously researched book, Intern Nation, the number of unpaid internships is growing exponentially, fueled by the failure of the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce the minimum wage, a new industry of internship coordinators and consultants, and the recession. It’s hard to quantify the impact of this phenomenon on the decline in economic mobility, but I suspect it has been substantial and will continue to grow until the  Department of Labor cracks down on what is, in many cases, illegal exploitation.