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Even Interns Are Expected To Dress For Success On The Hill

If you watched the State of the Union, you might have seen the abundance of high end suits, expensive dresses and pearls.

That expensive style of dress isn't reserved for the higher ups, it's a staple of Capitol Hill culture, from senators and chiefs of staff down to the summer intern. The high fashion may be shutting out some potential interns and staffers who can't afford it, according to Dr. Philip Lehman. Ten years ago, Dr. Lehman worked as an intern and staff member for the House Ways and Means Committee. He talked about the Capitol Hill fashion problem with NPR's Michel Martin.


Interview Highlights

On the importance of how you dress

One of the very first things you're told when you work on Capitol Hill is that there is a level of expectation as to how you dress. You're representing a member, a senator, a congressman, and you're expected to be wearing if you're a man, a suit and a tie, especially if you're in session. For women, something equivalently appropriate. And I think it requires a little bit of a chunk of change in order to fit the part, so to speak.

When he first noticed

I was walking around Capitol Hill visiting offices, meeting with staffers and interns. It sort of struck me that, man, everybody looks fantastic. And then I really thought, how is this even possible?

I really came to thinking and I crunched some numbers about how much I made when I was a Capitol Hill intern, and then a staffer. And essentially, I lived on an almost day-to-day basis, and had around $23 a day of discretionary income, based on my income of $25,000 a year.

So when you walk around and you see people wearing, as I say in the piece, Tory Burch flats for example, $225 a pop. Who could possibly afford that if you only had $23 a day, after just paying something simple like your rent and utilities?

How people can afford it

The conclusion is that at the end of the day if you're going to dress this nicely, and there's this expectation that you need to look a certain part in order to simply just afford the experience. That means one of three things has to be true. Either you have to pick up a second job, you are taking on massive amounts of credit card debt, or perhaps money isn't an issue for you. And if that's the case, then that really has implications for what the pipeline of who works on Capitol Hill in the future looks like

Why it matters

It's a problem because there are probably many people for whom working on Capitol Hill would be the ultimate public service career. And I hate to say it, but they might actually be priced out from the de facto entry experience into that lifestyle looking forward.

So you're kind of stuck in a rut, how do you get your foot in the door when you can't even afford the experience?

Solution: Higher wages

The obvious solution of course would be to provide a wage that wouldn't effectively prohibit some group of people from having a little bit of a greater chance to work on Capitol Hill. It's not that everybody needs to make a lot of money, but I would hate for anybody to not want to even think about working on Capitol Hill because they know that they just couldn't survive on, let's say, three months or even more of unpaid work.

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