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Survey: Family Paid Rent for a Third of Former Interns

Roll Call surveyed congressional staffers about their cost of living when they were interns

The high cost of living in D.C. causes many Capitol Hill interns to find other ways to make ends meet — like taking a part-time job or going into debt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The high cost of living in D.C. causes many Capitol Hill interns to find other ways to make ends meet — like taking a part-time job or going into debt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When a new batch of interns descends on D.C., they land in the middle of the city’s housing market. And to borrow a line from a perennial candidate from New York: The rent is too damn high.

Roll Call surveyed congressional staffers to ask about the logistics of being an intern. The high cost of living in D.C. caused many interns to find other ways to make ends meet — like taking a part-time job or going into debt.

For 35 percent of respondents, parents, family or a spouse paid the rent during their Hill internships, the most common response. 

Only three people said, “My internship paid well enough to pay rent.”

As for the others? Twelve percent said they lived rent-free and another 12 percent said their internship programs paid well enough to cover the cost of housing. Ten percent used their savings for rent payments.

“I spent down savings from a previous job,” one said. Another answered, “life savings.”

For some, their internships left them in a long-lasting financial hole. Several said that they acquired debt from student loans or rent payments that were included in their college tuition.

As one person summed it up: “Ran up a wonderful credit card debt.”

Only a third of the former interns surveyed said they had a part-time job while interning on the Hill. 

Of the 164 respondents who responded to the question of whether they were ever a congressional intern, 101 of them, or 62 percent, said yes. Of the former interns, 72 percent said their internship was unpaid and 41 percent had interned within the last five years.

Thirty percent of the former interns said their internships were more than 15 years ago, 12 percent said 10 to 15 years ago, and 18 percent said five to 10 years ago.

The next level

More than half of the respondents said staffers had to reach the chief of staff level to make enough money to be comfortable financially.

Of those, roughly 30 of them identified as a chief of staff or someone in a senior staff position.

staffer survey job-01

Only one of the 164 respondents — a self-identified policy analyst — said staff assistants make enough money to be comfortable financially. 

Thirty-six percent said mid-level staffers earn a sufficient salary to be comfortable financially, and 11 percent said no income level would make a staffer comfortable. Of the latter group, two said they were chiefs of staff themselves and one identified as a 55-year-old counsel.

Chiefs of staff in the Senate make roughly $130,000 to $160,000. In the House, the average salary for the position is $135,000.

Additionally, in an election year, many chiefs and other senior staffers get some supplemental money from the campaign for work done outside of official time.

Mid-level staffers, like a legislative assistant or a press secretary, make roughly $60,000 in the Senate. In the House, those same positions earn them roughly $50,000.

Staff assistants in both chambers make roughly $30,000.

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