ProPublica shouldn't pay so well. At least, that's the argument it sounds like Felix Salmon is trying to make over at Reuters today regarding a ProPublica advertisement for an intern to make $700 per week. He extrapolates that salary rate for the 12-week internship into what it would mean annually, about $36,000.
The problem with his post is manifold. Salmon uses census data from 1999 to pin the New York City per-capita income at $22,402. It's weird to use per-capita income, since it includes children and non-workers. It tells you a lot about the standard of living for the population as a whole, but it doesn't tell you a lot about whether $700 a week is a fair wage. If the intern has a child, then they're doing a little worse than that. If they have an employed partner, it depends on how much the partner is making. Secondly, it's unclear why he would use the data in the first place. It may be the last official census number available, but it's so old it's useless for a comparison. Usually, when we talk about income, we use median household income data, since its the income brought into households by its members over 15. Dick Tofel from ProPublica responded in the comments that more recent data puts New York City's median income near $50,000, which was certainly the national median household level in 2007 and the early months of 2008, even accounting for the recession.
His other comparisons to median salaries for the 14 to 25 age groups and 25 to 29 age groups are also unfair. In the chart he links to, the data for the categories he used do not account for education level. The median salary for those with some college but no degree is $29,000 per year, and the median salary for those with a degree is $45,000. As it happens, the ProPublica salary is within that range.
Most confusingly, though, Salmon argues that such a well-paying job would only draw elites who expect to get paid that much. That immediately struck me as odd, because when I was in college only the wealthy students could take internships, often low-paying or unpaid. Their parents could pay their rent over the summers and after college, increasing the kind of access they already had to jobs that would build their resumes. Meanwhile the rest of us worked long hours at the coffee shop.
As ProPublica responded, a better salary would level the playing field. Better salaries allow less wealthy college students, especially the ones taking on a lot of debt because their parents can't afford to pay, to compete for all kinds of jobs, even the entry-level internships that don't immediately compensate well. That's the logic behind all of these programs that work to forgive student loans for those who enter low-paying careers, an effort that will be improved if Obama has his way. It strikes me that a well-paying internship is exactly what less privileged students need.
-- Monica Potts