What If Wealthy College Kids Were Required to Do Low-Wage Jobs?

“And when you ask them to smile to the customers, they ask you why? They don’t smile to us; they don’t look at us,” Nejjar said.          

* * *

Morocco has less income inequality than the United States does. On the Gini Index, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality, Morocco has a coefficient of .41 and the US scores .45.  Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has written extensively on class divergence in the U.S. His book, Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010, shows that increasingly, class difference is more than economic. His research, based on the General Social Survey, shows that the upper class has become culturally sealed off from the rest of the country. They buy different kinds of cars, care about the environment and body weight, raise their children differently, want different vacations, and don’t care about professional sports like many other Americans do. Though class difference manifests differently in Morocco, the division is not uniquely an American problem.  

To avoid making the internship a comedy a la The Simple Life, L'Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie requires students to prepare for the experience. Students write a letter of motivation outlining what they hope to learn and their commitment to the company to be reviewed by a jury composed of professors and administrators. After the experience, students write a 10-page reflection and present on what they learned to the jury. Nejjar said she realized how much she learned largely through the reflective process.

Of course, not everyone gets the same experience out of the program. Some students don’t take it seriously and skip out on work. Others, like Nejjar’s sister Soraya, are assigned to firms where there isn’t as much income inequality—though Soraya still found the experience useful to learn about leadership.

Sawsene Nejjar found her experience to be illuminating. Over time she became close with her co-workers, and two years later she continues to drop by and visit. Still, Murray expressed doubt about the internship’s effectiveness toward providing a full understanding of other classes, citing his and others’ experience with Thailand.

“They come back after say half a year—they’ve done a semester abroad, something like that,” he said. “And they think they know a lot more than they know, and they still have not gotten anywhere into the rhythms of life in a different culture, the social cues. They were still very much outsiders after six months. Would I rather have that than nothing? Or the kinds of kids growing up in the bubble that I wrote about? Yeah, I guess I would rather have six months than nothing, but it has the downside of making people think they understand something they don’t really understand.”

Murray’s skepticism aside, it’s hard not to think of the good a program like this could do in the U.S. Would Walmart host a food drive for its sales associates if its C-suite employees and board members spent a month cleaning the store bathrooms? Would McDonald’s suggest its full-time employee of 10 years apply for food stamps to make ends meet if its leaders spent a month flipping burgers and mingling with the hoi palloi? Maybe minimum wage would keep up with inflation if our congressmen and senators sold furniture.

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Michelle Sutherland is the advertising adviser to the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech.

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