This essay was first published in Newsday. Jessica Padron is an American success story: The first in her family to attend college, this 20-year-old University of Nevada student was offered a coveted spot as an intern in the Capitol Hill office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The only problem is, she can't afford it. The internship is unpaid. So Padron has posted a fundraising plea on the website Indiegogo.com, where she is soliciting $6,500 to pay for four months' living expenses in Washington. If she doesn't raise the money through crowdsourcing, she can't accept the job, where she hopes to learn to influence foreign policy.
Go, Jessica! This young woman is aggressive and creative in pursuit of her dreams - perhaps exactly the kind of person the United States needs shaping international relations. Too bad she doesn't come from a well-off family that can pay her way. The promise of our country's meritocracy is that hard work, ingenuity and family wealth will achieve the American dream, right?
No, scratch that part about family wealth. Opportunities like these should be open to people up and down the socioeconomic ladder, achieved mainly by smarts and diligence. And that's the problem with unpaid internships. They reinforce the declining social mobility in America.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project, a research organization, more than 40 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth in family income remain stuck there as adults. Economic opportunity and upward mobility are the foundation of the American dream and remain at the core of our nation's identity. Without that, who are we? It's now easier to rise from humble origins to economic heights in Canada and much of Western Europe, Pew says, than it is in America.
Surely, internships offer wonderful benefits apart from money. Assuming they're well-structured to include more than filing and fetching, they offer resume-building work experience and insight about careers. But those that are unpaid - especially for college graduates - can be exploitative.
In June, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage laws by not paying production interns working on "Black Swan." District Court Judge William H. Pauley III said the internship wasn't structured to educate; the interns were essentially regular employees.
Also, some legal protections against discrimination and sexual harassment don't apply to unpaid interns. Because they don't receive a paycheck, they're not "employees" under the Civil Rights Act, courts have ruled.
Some interns have begun to challenge their deals. A group of 12 interns published a letter to the editor in The Nation magazine this summer, making their case for higher pay. The magazine had offered a $150 weekly stipend, along with travel and housing grants. Beginning this fall, The Nation will, instead, pay minimum wage.
Of course, interns aren't the only ones frustrated by low pay. Thousands of workers at major fast-food chains - including McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Taco Bell - have been staging one-day strikes to demand increases to their average $7.40 an hour. At about the same time, McDonald's foolishly published a suggested monthly budget for its employees that omitted any spending for child care, clothing, gas or food - and assumed income from a second job.
When people work and don't make enough to budget for food, something is dramatically wrong. Will this frustration bubble over to swell union membership? That seems like a natural reaction, but union ranks have been declining for so long, it's hard to imagine them reviving.
Interns, by definition, are in a fragile position - trying to get a foothold in an occupation, aiming to please. It's a shame to exploit that eagerness by paying them nothing.