Thousands of interns have descended on the nation’s capital, hoping to gain connections and work experience — and unlike private companies, the government and nonprofit organizations don’t have to pay them.

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When Dominic Peacock found out he had been selected for an unpaid summer internship at the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., he looked up the airfare from Albuquerque, rejected the option, and boarded a bus and rode 44 hours.

Now, after a long day thumbing through bills and working for legislation to protect tribal artifacts, he walks a few blocks to a hotel restaurant where he buses tables until 1 a.m. His workweek — 60 to 75 hours long — affords him one day off to catch up on chores in his American University dorm room and explore the city.

“This is the schedule that I want,” said Peacock, a senior at the University of New Mexico and member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe. “I’m going to finish this. I don’t care what it costs.”

Thousands of interns like Peacock have descended on the nation’s capital, hoping to gain connections and work experience answering phones, sorting mail and occasionally helping with larger projects in congressional offices, federal institutions, nonprofits and legal divisions across the city.

And unlike private companies, the government and nonprofit organizations don’t have to pay them. More than 200 federal programs within Washington offer internship positions, some paid, some not. Congressional offices, which hire thousands of interns each year, pay very few of them. And the White House doesn’t pay a single intern out of almost 100. Still more unpaid interns come to work for local nonprofits. And since a federal appeals court ruling last year, some private companies can hire free interns if the students earn college credit instead of wages.

Such interns may cost their employers nothing, but some economists worry such programs do carry a cost. Free labor could be depressing wages in Washington while turning the federal government and Capitol Hill into arenas where only wealthy students can afford to work. In turn, children of privilege get another leg up on their less fortunate classmates.

“If your parents are living paycheck to paycheck, how are you going to do it?” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank that focuses on labor and economic issues. “It restricts access to jobs in government to a narrower group of people.”

Eisenbrey said he also worries that unpaid internships drive down wages for entry-level jobs by forcing would-be employees to compete with college students willing to work for nothing.

A 2012 survey, commissioned by the Chronicle of Higher Education, found that human resource professionals, managers, and executives consider internships to be the most important factor as they decide whether to hire a recent college graduate. Citing that survey, Joanna Venator of the Brookings Institution called unpaid internships a “glass floor” that “keeps less talented children born to affluent parents at the top of the income ladder” while impeding class mobility.

“The costs of living in the intern capitals — New York, Los Angeles, D.C. — are beyond the reach of most low-income and even middle-income students,” she wrote last year.

But the internships are not necessarily a big help. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that students who took unpaid internships received lower median starting salaries compared with their peers who worked for employers who paid their interns — perhaps because entry-level workers who have had a paid internship can demand higher starting wages.

And people willing to take unpaid internships do not necessarily parlay that selflessness into success. The survey also showed that almost 60 percent of paid federal interns received full-time job offers when their internships ended, while nearly 40 percent of the unpaid interns were hired on permanently.

For those working in Washington gratis, a little help from the parents goes a long way. Courtney Schneider, an unpaid intern for Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, saved up money from her job at the Clemson University recreation center pool and now takes weekend shifts as a lifeguard in the Northern Virginia suburb where she grew up. But her parents, a private school admissions director and a global controls manager at Exxon Mobil, pay her rent.

“I definitely think it would be more difficult without some kind of help,” Schneider said. “Everyone I know has to get help from family or a scholarship.”

Courtney Schneider, an unpaid intern for Rep. Randy Neugebauer, gives constituents a tour on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Al Drago / The New York Times)
Courtney Schneider, an unpaid intern for Rep. Randy Neugebauer, gives constituents a tour on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Al Drago / The New York Times)

Interns connect at mixers and online in Facebook groups, and Washington embraces these students with its bars, monuments, museums — and even paddleboarding on the Potomac River.

Bars and clubs cater to the summer flood of students with discounted drinks or cover charges for interns who show their badges at the door. Even with intern-friendly deals, though, going out in the city can strain a student’s budget, said Zachary Feldmann, a sales intern at the power tool manufacturing company Hilti.

“Living in D.C. was on my bucket list,” Feldmann, a graduate student studying business at the University of Maryland, said. “But I don’t know if I could put down roots here just because it’s so expensive.”

Some students think they know exactly what to expect during their Washington internship, only to be surprised by the city. Rachel Molsberry, a law student at the University of Minnesota, expected a tougher town when she arrived in May to intern for the general counsel’s office at the National Institutes of Health.

“It shocked me how nice everybody is here,” said Molsberry, who will graduate from law school next year. “You hear about the East Coast attitude, but I haven’t experienced that at all.”

When Peacock isn’t at his internship or busing tables, he likes to visit the Lincoln Memorial because it reminds him of his tribe’s history. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln officially recognized the sovereignty of several Pueblo tribes in New Mexico for the first time. Peacock said the monument reminds him of the importance of his home in the “sky city,” a collection of Acoma homes built atop a mesa.

A striver now, Peacock said he hopes his summer of sometimes 70-hour workweeks will help him gain an edge when he applies to law school after graduation. He worked as an intern in Washington last fall as well, and said he really wanted to return to the National Congress of American Indians for the summer even though he knew he would have to work long hours to pay his way.

“If you really work hard then you’re going to be victorious,” Peacock said. “As long as I’m doing something that benefits the tribe, that’s OK with me.”