On Advocates for “Economic Justice” Advertising Unpaid/Underpaid Internships

ʾTis the season for finding an internship if you are a college student or recent college graduate. It can be an exciting and terrifying time.

Many of those internships are unpaid, though. These unpaid internships are inherently unjust[1] for a multitude of reasons: they are a way for places to get work done without having to properly compensate anyone for it, they exclude less wealthy individuals from opportunities that can give them an “in” within their desired field (because they don’t have other support so they can’t afford to work for free or for sub-minimum wage), and they leave employees (the unpaid interns) with no recourse if they get injured at work, to name a few.

That being said, such behavior is about what I would expect from a corporation whose main goal is to have as large of a profit margin as possible.

But from organizations or elected officials that advertise “economic justice” as one of their main missions? Seriously? You have got to be kidding me.

Such things are quite common with economic justice organizations. I have come across internships that advertise a summer of advocating for economic justice on one hand, but don’t carry that out themselves because they pay little to nothing to their interns on the other hand. It’s actually quite common for economic justice organizations with millions in donations, ranging from the Sargent Shriver Center for Poverty Law[2] to the National Center for Law and Economic Justice,[3] to advocate for economic justice while having unpaid internships. By advocating for economic justice but not carrying out that message through actually paying interns, those messages of economic justice come across as disingenuous.

It’s also quite common to see unpaid internships from elected officials who talk about economic justice and equality. While some people fess up (sort of) and say that a posting for an unpaid internship was made “in error,”[4] some don’t care, and others (including some I know) will argue that they want interns to be paid but that they simply don’t have the budget to pay their interns. While the last of these three sentiments comes across as well-intended, such a response should not let the elected official who doesn’t pay interns (especially elected officials who talk about economic justice) off the hook. To the contrary, if the paying of interns is a funding issue, maybe elected officials should consider advocating funding for pay for interns with the same sort of vigor that they have when advocating for funding for pay raises to give to themselves.

If any of these suggestions make advocates of economic justice cringe, #SorryNotSorry. Unpaid internships are an issue of economic justice. Anyone who wants to not just “talk the talk,” but “walk the walk,” on economic justice should do everything in their power to pay their interns. Especially if the money is there to pay their interns.


[1] Just to set the record straight, my ire is directed at places that have money and can afford to pay six figures to their CEOs but “can’t afford to pay the interns.” It’s not directed at places where the money is scant and can afford only modest salaries (or no salaries at all) for even the higher-ups, places that are really driven by volunteers.

[2] https://povertylaw.org/files/jobs/Summer%20Legal%20Intern.pdf

[3] This listing is from 2017, so I hope the organization’s policy has changed in the past two years: https://nclej.org/jobs-and-internships/internships

[4] Yes, I’m talking about Chuck Schumer’s office: https://www.businessinsider.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-slams-future-colleagues-congress-for-employing-unpaid-interns-living-wage-2018-12

Why the “Bootstraps” Narrative of Economic Mobility is Problematic

“I pulled myself up by my bootsraps and that’s how I got to where I am today.”

To which I would say, “Congratulations on your success! I’m happy for you!”

While I do not begrudge people who succeed through their hard work (nor should others), I’m also concerned that this “bootstraps” narrative is also harmful to many people who don’t achieve what American society defines as success, on the grounds that they “didn’t pull by the bootstraps at all/hard enough.” And at that, I’m concerned enough that it’s worth dedicating a blog post to this.

One problem is that the idea of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” creates a wrongful impression that we do, or we can, succeed all by ourselves without any help from others. But the fact is that, while some people accomplish great things without much help, that happens rarely. I say that because, somewhere along the way, many of us get help from academic or athletic scholarships, an employer who believed in us when we struggled to believe in ourselves, a mentor, a wealthy family member or friend, or someone else—or a combination of some of these. Of the people I know, both personally and in the public arena, I can’t recall a single person who succeeded without another person helping them or believing in them.

Furthermore, to say “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” creates the impression that people who don’t succeed (or achieve society’s definition of success) are automatically lazy, underachievers, or have some other negative characteristic. While I’m sure there are people who don’t succeed because of their own wrongdoings, many others struggle because of characteristics outside their control. For example, I’ve known people to experience struggles because of tragic events in their life or the lives of people they’re closest to, various ailments, unjust events, or other things. Sometimes there are life circumstances that keep people from being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or have no bootstraps at all.

Finally, the “bootstraps” narrative does not acknowledge that there are flaws in our society which keep people from doing exactly that. From the mountains of college debt that keep some younger adults from being able to pull themselves up, to various forms of institutional racism which keep some groups of people weighed down (some of which I mention in various posts in my current institutional racism series), some people lack the “bootstraps” to pull on.

Ultimately, the “bootstraps” narrative of success, as nice as it sounds, does not do justice to either the people who help us succeed or those among us who don’t succeed for reasons outside of their control.

On the Recent College Admissions Scandal

As many of my readers, especially in the United States, may know, there continues to be fallout from a college admissions scandal where wealthy parents of potential students paid gobs of money to a consultant who would do whatever it took for the parents’ kids to get into the colleges of their choice (inflating test scores, bribing college officials, etc.). It’s a disgusting situation that has exposed the extent to which some people can (and have) been able to get kids into college, even through illegal means. 

And yet, amidst people’s collective disgust over what the parents of these kids did, I’m afraid that we’re all missing a larger problem: the United States has an educational system, from childbirth to college admissions, that is stacked in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected having the best chance of getting in (at the expense of the poor and those who aren’t well-connected), whether through means that are legal or illegal.

It starts with childbirth because there are many things about the college admissions process that are determined by which family a child is from. If a child has family who went to the school that he/she/they eventually hope to go to one day, then the child is a legacy; this is a distinction that gives a child a significantly improved chance at getting into certain institutions.[1] If the child has a last name that indicates a connection to power or wealth, then the child has a significantly improved chance of getting into certain institutions. But if the child has neither going in his/her/their favor, then there’s some work cut out for them, to say the least.

As a child gets to kindergarten and goes through the K-12 system, another factor of wealth and connection comes into play: the school district a child is in. If a child is placed in a school district with few resources and bad teachers, that child could easily fall behind and never catch up again. If a child is placed in a district with plentiful resources, that child is often in much better shape. Of course, some families have enough wealth that they can avoid the public school system altogether.[2]

Throughout the K-12 experience, there are numerous things that wealthier families can afford that other families can’t: paying for tutors, getting kids involved in sports or hobbies that cost lots of money but make a résumé look good, being around to help their kids with homework, taking trips to all different parts of the world for educational purposes, and more. Those families who don’t have the resources for all or any of these things often find themselves at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers.

However, the issue of money and the chances of quality higher education arguably reaches a fever pitch with the college admissions process. Schools want prospective students to come visit, except visiting costs money. Schools want prospective students to do well on their standardized tests (especially SATs and ACTs), except the test prep needed to ace those exams sometimes runs into the thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars. Schools want prospective students to challenge themselves with Advanced Placement courses, except the Advanced Placement exams connected with these courses cost money as well. Some schools even want kids to take SAT2 tests, which cost even more money. College application fees can quickly add up, too. All told, it probably costs even a family with moderate resources thousands of dollars these days in order to get their kids into the colleges of their choice. For a family with resources, getting a kid into college may be a five-, six-, or even seven-figure endeavor, whether it be through legal (expensive test prep, going to an exclusive private school, having parents who give large donations to the child’s prospective school, etc.) or illegal (bribing, like with the current scandal) means.

Ultimately, while many of us who aren’t wealthy lament how the deck is “stacked against us” in the college admissions process in light of the recent admissions scandal, the fact is that the deck is stacked against the “little person” regardless of the scandal. The entire process of getting a child into an elite school, from childbirth to the admissions process, is stacked in favor of those who are wealthy and connected. And that is not an attack on those who are wealthy and connected—it’s just the fact.


[1] On a side note, during my own college admissions process many moons ago, my family was looking to use to my advantage my legacy status at a place to which I was applying. So I know this from experience.

[2] From 5th grade on, I was able to go to a Catholic school, so I know what I mean here. And, as much of an advantage as these schools gave me, even that advantage is dwarfed by the name recognition, as well as personal, educational, and professional connections and other advantages provided by expensive, elite private schools.

The Government Shutdown Screws Over the Poor

While I touched on the government shutdown in last week’s post, I felt that it was really important this week to dedicate a full post to the government shutdown. The task of dedicating a post to the shutdown, admittedly, was tremendously difficult because there are just so many injustices surrounding the whole debacle. There are environmental consequences of trash piling up in parks. There are national security consequences, as organizations responsible for our safety and security aren’t being paid (with all the stress, decrease in morale, and subsequent compromising of national security which comes along with the shutdown).[1] There are a lot of individuals and groups who get hurt by the shutdown.

When studying the shutdown a little more, it became quite obvious who I should focus on for this post: the poor. Why? Because if we’re honest with ourselves, those who are screwed over the most by this shutdown are the poor, whether we like to admit it or not.

For starters, government workers who are struggling to make ends meet already may find themselves without a home. This USA Today article from Christmas Day featured many a government worker (or many a government worker’s families) expressing anxiety about a potential inability to pay for basic living expenses. One of these workers even expressed anxiety about potential eviction if the government doesn’t open and back pay doesn’t kick in quickly. Members of Congress and the President will continue to get paid, but some poor government workers may end up homeless if this shutdown continues. The government shutdown screws over poor government workers who are living from paycheck to paycheck.

Additionally, tax refunds may be delayed as a result of the government shutdown.[2] The reason for this is that, as long as the government is shut down, tax refunds will not be issued at all. For people who are well off, these refunds may not be a big deal. But for people who are poor and who are living from paycheck to paycheck, it is a huge deal and it may be the difference between being able to afford the basics and not being able to afford the basics. The government shutdown screws over poor people for whom a tax refund may make a difference.

Finally, many food benefits are in danger as a result of the government shutdown, and additional food benefits will be endangered if the government shutdown drags on. For example, WIC, which is a nutrition program to help food-stressed and at-risk women and children, has already run out of funding, and it is left to local and state governments to cover for what the federal government can’t do. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which is a food program for low-income senior citizens, has suffered the same fate as WIC. If the shutdown drags on to the end of January, funding will run out for food stamps. If the shutdown drags into February, funding will run out for various child nutrition programs; this will endanger school breakfast, school lunch, summer food service, and other special programs.[3] The government shutdown royally screws over poor, food-stressed families.

Some people may not be affected severely by the government shutdown. But millions are already being severely affected by the shutdown, and the consequences will become significantly more dire for those affected the longer this shutdown goes. Most of all, though, it’s the poor who are getting screwed over the most by the incompetence in Washington, D.C.


[1] And to think that this shutdown was in the name of a “national security” issue—in other words, a border wall. Ironic, isn’t it?

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/government-shutdown-delay-irs-tax-filing-and-refund-brings-chaos-just-before-tax-filing-season/

[3] https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2018/12/29/usda-updates-available-functions-during-lapse-funding

America’s Failure to Support Troops…Economically

“Support our troops.” People in the United States frequently hear and see this phrase in a variety of settings: on cars, from politicians, and from friends posting on social media, to name a few.

And I agree. We should support our troops. While my personal opinion is that we should avoid war except in the most extreme of circumstances (example: if our own nation is attacked, like with Pearl Harbor), people who risk their own lives on behalf of the entire country should be supported. Since people in the military serve our country, our country should in return serve our military veterans. It’s the least we can do in the United States.

And yet, economically, we don’t support our troops.

There are numerous damning statistics on this fact. As of 2014, 25% of military families sought some sort of assistance with food.[1] There are about 40,000 homeless veterans, and that number actually rose between 2016 and 2017.[2] There were nearly 1.5 million veterans in the United States living below the poverty line as of 2012.[3]

And we haven’t even gotten to wages, which are abysmal. For example, a starting salary for someone starting in the U.S. Army as an enlisted soldier, according to the Houston Chronicle, is $1,491 a month ($17,892 a year). While that number goes up after several years of experience, an enlisted soldier with several years of experience can still earn under $30,000 a year.[4] Some of these salaries are below the minimum wage of some states, and they are certainly not living wages.

These are just a few statistics that show how this nation literally does not put its money where its mouth is. This nation talks a big game about supporting troops, yet fails to do so by paying living wages to troops and making sure that veterans aren’t homeless or in poverty. Shame on the United States for not giving back to people who have given so much to this country. Many of our troops have risked their lives to protect this country, and yet the government is risking the livelihoods of troops and their families through providing many of them with inadequate pay. This country does not truly support its troops.

However, we, as individuals, could raise our voices on this issue. We, as individuals, could contact our representatives in the House and Senate and ask them to make sure that all members of the military earn a living wage. Oh, and it would help if this problem gained national attention.


[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/in-plain-sight/hungry-heroes-25-percent-military-families-seek-food-aid-n180236

[2] https://www.npr.org/2017/12/06/568755985/the-number-of-homeless-veterans-rises

[3] https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/specialreports/veteran_poverty_trends.pdf

[4] http://work.chron.com/salaries-us-army-soldiers-6496.html