Ask any hiring manager in America, and they’ll acknowledge that internships are one of the key pathways to full-time employment in certain fields or industries. In doling out these coveted opportunities, HR departments have long agreed that inclusiveness matters, as does the financial support that helps drive it.
If only Congress followed suit.
Enter Assistant Professor James Jones, a sociologist by training and member of Rutgers University–Newark’s African American & African Studies Department, who recently published a report exposing the lack of diversity among interns on Capitol Hill, especially for Hispanics/Latinos. The report also documents racial segregation among House interns, along with recommendations on how to fix both problems, which have long been a stain on the Congressional workplace.
Teaming up with the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Pay Our Interns, Jones looked specifically at the racial makeup and distribution of interns in the House of Representatives, conducting an in-person survey with 106 randomly selected Congressional offices in July 2019.
He found that:
* Hispanics/Latinos, who make up 18% of the population, occupy only 9% of House seats and 5% of internships, making them the most underrepresented group of interns
* Whites, who compose 61% of the U.S. population, are overrepresented in Congress, occupying 72% of House seats and 67% of legislative internships
* Blacks compose 13% of the population, and a similar percentage of both House seats and internships
* Asian/Pacific Islanders make up 6% of both the population and House members, while occupying 11% of internships
* Middle Eastern/North Africans (MENA) compose about 1% of both the U.S. population and House members, and 3% of House internships
* Native Americans make up 1.6% of the U.S. population and 1% of House seats, though Jones found no Native American interns in his study.
Despite the importance of congressional internships, we know surprisingly little about the administration of these programs.
Jones also looked at this data through the lens of the main Capitol Hill intern-applicant pool, college undergraduates. Here, too, Hispanics/Latinos are vastly underrepresented, making up 20% of undergraduates and only 5% of interns, while Whites are overrepresented, composing 52% of the U.S. undergraduate population and 67% of House interns. Black undergraduates come in at 15% and occupy 13% of internships, while Asian/Pacific Islander undergraduates stand at 8%, with 11% occupying House internships. Native Americans make up 1% of undergraduates and 0% of interns. There were no comparable stats available for MENA students.
“Internships are an important pipeline to becoming a staffer or Congressperson on Capitol Hill and impact policy and democratic representation in general,” said Jones, “but they also matter more broadly, in how they shape students’ identity regardless of the profession they choose. It’s a type of political training that is impactful, and the more training of this type we can give underrepresented groups, the better so that students can see what they can do in and out of politics.”
The Congressional workplace is also racially segregated, according to Jones’ report, with House interns of color primarily concentrated in the offices of Black, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander lawmakers, who are mostly Democrats. For this reason, the overall percentage of White interns was higher in GOP House offices than in Democrat offices (85% vs. 62%), but there was no statistically significant difference in the racial makeup of interns between White Democratic and White Republican House members: In the offices of White Democrats, 78% of interns were White versus 85% in the offices of White Republicans.
Jones also examined the issue of stipends. In 2018 Congress passed a law that, for the first time, provided funding for lawmakers to pay their D.C. legislative interns, allocating $20,000 to each House office for stipends. While 78% of interns in Jones’ sample received some level of compensation, he could not discern how widely available paid internships are, if they’re equitably distributed, and whether the compensation is sufficient for many students who work and live in Washington D.C.
In fact, gathering data on all the aforementioned issues proved challenging. Of the 106 offices Jones randomly contacted, 52% provided a full survey response, 12% gave a partial response, and 36% either declined to fill out his survey or returned a redacted version, underscoring the need for more workplace transparency and official data collection by Congress.
Jones’ report recommends that Congress democratize Congressional internships by expanding funding for stipends, increasing recruitment from communities of color, prioritizing need-based applicants, and making hiring practices more transparent.
But it all starts with centralized data collection.
“Despite the importance of congressional internships, we know surprisingly little about the administration of these programs,” said Jones. “There is no institution-wide record-keeping and no information about whether these opportunities are allocated equitably to women, racial minorities or students from less privileged backgrounds.”
Unlike other federal agencies and U.S. businesses at large, Congress has exempted itself from federal workplace laws requiring all employers to collect and publicly report demographic data about their employees.
Jones’ first encountered this irony when he published a report on the Senate with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies back in 2015. That report looked at the lack of diversity among senior staff members in the offices of Senators from both parties, who hire and mentor younger members, and found that while people of color compose one-third of the country, they represent only about 7 percent of that body’s senior congressional aides.
Jones believed then, as he does now, that demographic data are key to prompting substantive change. Beltway insiders have long known about the diversity issue, but without stats, there’s been little movement on the issue.
That may be changing, however—albeit slowly.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) adopted one of Jones’ key 2015 recommendations: to collect and release demographic info for Senate Democratic staff. But Jones says this data needs to be disaggregated to give a more nuanced picture and make it clear whether staffers of color are concentrated in D.C. or state offices and if they are evenly distributed across positions. As the data is presented now, Jones suspects that it hides how most staffers of color work in state offices and mid-to-low-level positions, which minimizes their influence in policymaking.
Meanwhile, last week in a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) offered an amendment to have that body collect demographic data on Congressional interns after reading Jones’ most recent report.
“We’ve been fighting this battle for a while, and it’s amazing this last amendment happened so fast,” said Jones. “It’s very rare to have this quick a response. There’s been a lack of willingness to talk about this openly in the Democratic party as they try to present an image of a diverse party. Hopefully, this represents real change.”