After he graduated from college, it took Nathan two years, three unpaid internships and six bartending and retail jobs before he got his first paid gig in progressive politics. His employer was a small, millennial-focused outreach nonprofit, and his job was to supervise four interns — young kids, fresh out of school, working the same day job/night job, 80-hour-a-week cycle he had just exited.
Nathan, who wouldn’t give his real name out of fear of retaliation, asked his boss if he could start paying the interns. “I didn’t think I was going to get them federal minimum wage — that’s impossible in Washington,” he said. “But at least they could get a stipend.”
His boss refused, without offering much of a case for why they couldn’t afford to pay them.
“It just wasn’t a conversation,” Nathan said. “I didn’t have the authority to push it because I was a low-level person.”
He felt complicit, and after a few months, he quit. He’s currently in grad school to become a teacher.
“I had a lot of hope that my party would not be slimy,” he said. “But that felt slimy.”
Nathan’s experience is emblematic of a growing concern on the left: For a movement that wants to reach young people, low-income workers and people of color, progressive organizations and candidates don’t offer many paid opportunities.
“This is why we see attrition in the movement,” said Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress, the youth arm of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress (which pays its interns, incidentally).
For decades, internships, fellowships and paid travel to conferences have acted like a tractor beam, drawing young people into political movements and holding them long enough to become researchers, strategists and candidates. But the funding to support those kinds of programs hasn’t kept up with the economic realities of the young people who today’s progressives are trying to reach.
“The pipeline of young people who can get through school, deal with student debt and stay involved in politics has shrunk dramatically compared to previous generations,” Thompson said.
Progressives aren’t just out of sync with their own need to recruit and retain young people. They’re also lagging behind conservative interests. A 2017 study found that between 2008 and 2014, conservative donors gave three times more to millennial outreach groups than liberal donors. Much of that funding, Thompson says, went to things like paid fellowships, travel stipends and study grants ― creating the feeder system that will guide young people into actual jobs with political campaigns and think tanks.
“The Republicans are building an army, while the Democrats are still paying you in ‘making the world a better place,’” said Carlos Vera, the executive director of Pay Our Interns, a watchdog group. “I’ve had older people say to me, ‘Well, I did unpaid internships and I was fine.’ Then you ask them when that was and they say, ‘1972.’ You could work your way through college back then. That simply is not the case anymore.”
Vera spent last year calling every lawmaker in the House and Senate and asking whether they paid their interns. His report, Experience Doesn’t Pay the Bills, found that more than half of Republican senators offered paid internships, compared to fewer than a third of Democratic senators. In the House it was even worse: Twice as many Republicans as Democrats paid their interns.
This year, Vera has been calling nonprofits and think tanks and asking them the same thing. So far he’s found the same pattern: Fox News, the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity pay their interns. The Progressive Policy Institute, Let America Vote and the Human Rights Campaign don’t.