Unpaid Internships Are Another Way Society Discriminates Against the Poor

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Capitalism is nothing if not consistent. After literal slavery was outlawed, the industrialized world turned to child labor. When that was rooted out, it pivoted to sweatshop workers and then to undocumented “illegal” workers. After that, it was prison labor for pennies per hour.

And the cheap-labor bargains just keep rolling in. Now that we’ve got these practices on the ropes, we’re pivoting yet again — this time to unpaid internships. What each of these types of labor have in common is that they prey primarily upon folks who had limited options to begin with.

What Do the Numbers Tell Us About Unpaid Internships?

YouGov, in conjunction with the National Union of Students, found that in the last 30 to 40 years, the number of individuals aged 18 to 24 undertaking unpaid work has risen from two percent to 20 percent.

That is not encouraging. Of all the human institutions we rely on to keep the world turning, capitalism is the one that’s most regularly touted as “the best” or even “the only” possible way to do things. But if the theoretical (and stated) goal of human civilization is to improve the standard of living for our children and their children, it seems something seriously wrong is going on here.

We should be seeing fewer people working for free — not more. There are far-reaching implications to this proliferation of free work, and most of them hit minorities and the poor hardest.

It is widely understood among economists that unpaid internships hinder, rather than help, social mobility. Why? Because students from poorer households are more likely to work unrelated paid jobs during college to stay afloat, meaning they can’t pursue internships.

But experience is now required for most entry-level positions. It’s that famous catch-22. By then, the realities of a rising cost of living and the need for shelter and food are beginning to set in, meaning many poor and lower-middle-class individuals find themselves nearly without options — except to find paid work wherever it’s offered, and often not within their intended field.

A Study in Class Divides

For unpaid work to be protected within the bounds of the law, it must have been facilitated through an internship class or program at a college. Another loophole is if the company doing the “hiring” is a nonprofit entity.

Since America’s Great Recession, unpaid internships have only proliferated. To hear experts tell it, in the 1990s, “formal apprenticeships” (what became unpaid internships) were far, far less common than they are today. They provided onsite, hands-on experience for people who required certification or some other manner of official credential to continue their career — think healthcare workers and professional accountants. These were not, in other words, ever intended for somebody who wants to get their foot in the doors of the book publishing, journalism or internet marketing fields.

By the peak of the Great Recession, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the number of college students participating in unpaid work had rocketed from 10 percent to over 80 percent.

The question of discrimination enters the mix when you consider the far harder start that poorer college students — and members of the ever-shrinking middle class — have to endure after graduation. Minority students are twice as likely as non-minorities to graduate with student debt. This debt is especially difficult to shoulder without the same familial and social support systems that well-off graduates enjoy.

Simply put, taking on unpaid or even underpaid work, merely on the promise that it might open doors, however idyllic it might sound, is simply not a realistic game plan for somebody already struggling monetarily.

Class Warfare by Any Other Name

Growing up means realizing many of the fairy tales we’re told about the American dream were exaggerations. False scarcity and the exploitation of the working class never went away — we’ve just gotten better at sweeping hypocrisy under the rug. This is the case with illegal immigrants working for our President’s companies or soon-to-be college graduates who are already working in their spare time and already deeply in debt.

So what’s this really about? Is it really about maximizing productivity and “shareholder earnings” without any regard to the human cost?

Unfortunately, signs point to “yes.” Since 2009, according to the Labor Department, the productivity of American workers has grown by almost 10 percent. In that same time, the business community enjoyed a 5.2 percent fall in the cost of labor. That’s the most significant drop in more than 40 years.

Get it? Human beings’ spare time is cheaper to buy than it’s been in decades — especially when you don’t have to “buy” it at all.

What this means is that no matter how you slice it, Americans are working longer and harder and getting paid less, on average, than workers just a generation ago. Millennials, by some accounts, earn 20 percent less for the same work boomers performed. This situation is already an outrage — but when you factor in unpaid work, the situation becomes more ludicrous still. Remember, Henry Ford paid his assembly line workers the equivalent of fifteen bucks an hour. To the best of our knowledge, he didn’t pay anybody in “experience.”

The good news is, recent years have seen this issue elevated into the mainstream. Individual states are seeking to close some of the final loopholes that make unpaid internships possible. President Obama’s Labor Department also took a firmer hand in bringing disciplinary action against employers who violated any of the six requirements for unpaid work to be legal.

Suffice it to say, wage theft and worker violations are more visible to the public than ever before, which means it won’t be too long before we put some of these ghosts of our poor judgment to rest for good.

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