03/24/2014 12:18 pm ET Updated May 24, 2014

Beware the D.C. Internship

Are you a smart undergraduate from a middle-class family looking for summer work that will leverage all those expensive classes into a potential future job and serve up an enriching real-world learning experience in the D.C. policy world? Good for you. You are the American dream: A hard-working, dedicated young person, determined to rise up even as your college debt weighs you down. You are the perfect Washington summer internship candidate.

Here's your first enriching, real-world lesson: Don't take that prestigious, government or nonprofit D.C. internship -- unless it's paid.

It's not that the internship wouldn't be enlightening: As someone who works at a nonprofit think tank (New America), the people I work with and range of ideas I'm exposed to everyday make it an exhilarating job. Undoubtedly, you would have a comparable experience working at a similar type of institution. The problem is that most interns working at policy-oriented nonprofits in this city aren't paid anything close to a reasonable hourly wage. And the deal that nonprofits are making with those unpaid interns is textbook exploitation.

I know what you're thinking: Isn't that illegal? Nope. You see, these types of organizations are nonprofit 501(c)(3)s. So besides all of the other messed up things nonprofits can do, it also means that if you intern there, you're technically a volunteer, so they don't have to pay you (the same is true for the government, and explains why Capitol Hill internships can be unpaid).

Employees at these types of organizations tend to be well compensated and receive good benefits. For example, I'm 25-years-old, went to a pretty good school for my bachelor's degree, and get an annual salary with benefits including healthcare and a retirement account. But because you're 21-years-old and still in school, you very likely would not be compensated for your labor, despite the fact that Washington, D.C. is an incredibly expensive place to live, especially if you're only trying to rent for two months.

How are nonprofits rationalizing this (especially the ones advocating for higher minimum wages and better labor laws)? One of the main arguments I've heard is because they "don't have the money." Like everyone else, nonprofits operate in a world of limited resources, and therefore have to make choices and trade-offs as to how to utilize these resources. And because you're an intern, you're not a high priority because, well, because you don't have to be. It's legal for the nonprofits to exploit you, and so many of them will. While certain well-known D.C. nonprofits pay their interns, just as many don't, and the last few years of heightened attention towards unpaid internships has not seemed to tip the balance in any significant way.

And yet. You might take the internship anyway. Why? Because it could give you a huge advantage in getting your first job out of college, especially since all of your wealthier peers are doing it. This benefit is why nonprofit organizations think it's okay to not pay you for your labor. It is also a textbook case of exploitation. Philosopher Kieran Oberman defines exploitation best:

In fact, benefiting while wronging is exactly what exploitation is all about. It is worth contrasting exploitation with theft. Theft is straightforward. You have something I want. I take it from you by force. You are left worse off as a result. Exploitation is more complicated. You have something I want and you are in a weaker position. I make you an offer for it that will leave you better off but is less than a fair price. Lacking any better offer, you agree to the trade. I have exploited you and therefore wronged you and you have benefited in the process.

Sound familiar? You would benefit from an internship at one of these nonprofits, but you will also have been wronged. Indeed, you would be doubly wronged -- once by your college and again by your employer -- if you take the internship for college credit. The college credit thing seems like a good idea, until you realize that you're likely taking out more student loans to pay the university to give you credit for a job that's not compensating you. In other words, you'd have to borrow extra money to pay the university to not teach you while your employer gets free labor. Instead of working for nothing, you'll be paying to work, plus interest.

How do we stop this form of exploitation from occurring? The solution lies where the problem's been incubating: Washington.

It's the government's job to regulate exploitative situations. At a minimum, all for-profits, nonprofits and government agencies should have to pay minimum wage to anyone working for them. Absent that type of sweeping federal legislation, nonprofit organizations working to improve society and the lives of all citizens have an intellectual and moral obligation to minimize exploitative situations between employer and employee and therefore pay all of their workers. And all of us should be treated with respect and adequately compensated for our labor. That means you can hold your head up high when you decide to take a job that pays you over the summer, even if it's not at some fancy non-profit. Smart, principled employers should value a strong work ethic and leadership experience just as much as time spent stuffing envelopes on Capitol Hill.