Wage wars: In search of the ‘American dream,’ students are often pushed to accept unpaid internships as necessary evil

Seen to stifle diversity and benefit the wealthy, unpaid internships leave students caught between the prospect of invaluable work experience and the threatening lack of a paycheck

By: Matt O’Connor

As the 2020 election inches closer, we’ll likely be subject to extensive, exhaustive rhetoric about “the American dream” and the hard work that is the ticket to success.

For some, their life has been a testament to the potential that exists in this country. For most, barriers to access keep the American dream just that — a dream.

There are many such barriers, some so deeply entrenched into the American experience that we simply accept them as standard practice. In recent years, many have pointed to unpaid internships as a glaring example of such barriers at work.

In this country’s intensely capitalist culture, payment for completed work is a core tenet of the American canon. For many, then, the widespread acceptance of unpaid internships seems antithetical to everything they’ve come to expect from an economy that claims it allows for the realization of goals as lofty as the American dream.

Indeed, their presence in America’s burgeoning workforce isn’t insignificant — a 2013 report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that just under half of all internships nationwide were unpaid. And they’re present in industries across the board — from communications and business, to politics and government, to engineering and tech.

Debate over their continued practice has grown intense, making the future of these professional opportunities uncertain. But regardless of public opinion or private practice, U.S. labor law is explicit — unpaid internships are legal.

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