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.

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

Waste Disposal: Where Ableism, Economic Injustice, and Environmental Injustice Meet Up

I have a bit of a Birth household confession to make: we have a growing amount of miscellaneous waste in my house. Among the products still lying about include a circa 2006 computer and its assorted parts, and light bulbs with mercury.

Fellow environmentalists are probably already judging me, and really my entire household, after my making this statement. But before you all judge me, please hear me out…

The problem my family faces, and the problem that many families face in New York and in other areas, is the relative lack of accessibility to places that handle certain types of waste.

For example, in my hometown of New York City, there are only five places (one for each borough) that handle waste such as latex paint, passenger car tires, and motor oil filters, among other things. To make matters worse, none of these so-called “Special Waste Drop-Off Sites” are centrally located, so you might have to dedicate an entire morning or afternoon to just dropping off your waste if you’re in the wrong part of New York City.

New York is not alone in having this problem. Seattle has only three such facilities in its entire city. Omaha, Nebraska has one option (a “Household Hazardous Waste Collection Facility”) for two entire counties. And Fremont County, Wyoming has only a few e-waste disposal areas in a land mass close to the size of New Hampshire.

The lack of accessibility to places that handle various types of waste is a major problem. This is a problem of ableism, economic injustice, and environmental injustice.

This is an issue of ableism because these policies assume that people can travel to waste-disposal facilities, and in many cases travel by car. If you are homebound, wheelchair-bound, or unable to drive, the waste-disposal policies of many municipalities prevent many people from disposing of their toxic waste.

This is also an issue of economic injustice because the policy of minimizing the number of waste disposal sites assumes that people have the freedom in their work schedules to potentially spend a couple hours to dispose of their materials. In a world where an increasing number of people need to work multiple jobs in order to keep rooves over their heads and food on their tables, this is an unsound assumption, and an assumption which results in many people being unable to dispose of their waste because their work schedules don’t allow them to do that.

Finally, this is an issue of environmental injustice because these policies make it difficult to impossible for many families to do the environmentally friendly thing—to take materials to a place that can properly handle them. When a municipality forces someone to travel several miles to dispose of tires or batteries, that town, county, or city is making it extremely difficult for people to properly dispose of their materials. If a place like New York City truly cared about the environment, the municipality would make it as easy as possible, not as hard as possible, to dispose of these materials properly.

For all of my complaining about the ableism, economic injustice, and environmental injustice of how assorted waste often gets handled, I also think it’s worth acknowledging that there is a better way to handle this issue.

This better way can be found in San Francisco. In that city, most substances can be dealt with by calling for a free home pick-up. A few other materials (old and expired medicines and needles) have numerous drop-off locations throughout that city. In fact, residents are only forced to travel a distance if they have unlabeled or unknown toxic waste or other hazardous substances. While I don’t know how this type of program works in practice, San Francisco’s way of handling waste, for the most part, theoretically keeps homebound people from travelling when they’re not able to travel, keeps people with busy lives from having to take hours out of their lives to travel to a facility, and makes it easy for residents to do the environmentally just thing.

Hopefully, other municipalities will follow San Francisco’s lead in making it easy for residents to deal with assorted waste. Until such a time as this happens, many waste-disposal programs are ableist, economically unjust, and environmentally unjust.

This is one of several pieces of e-waste that I have in my house. This ancient printer is one such piece of e-waste and is harder to get rid of than some readers might think.