Writers suffered enormously during the pandemic. The Federal Writers’ Project offers a template on how to help them — and the country.
By Scott Borchert
Mr. Borchert is the author of a history of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Nearly eight decades ago, the Federal Writers’ Project — the literary division of the New Deal’s vast jobs creation program — met an untimely demise at the hands of its enemies in Congress. Now it seems that Congress may invite its resurrection.
In May, Representatives Ted Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernández introduced legislation to create a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project. Inspired by the New Deal arts initiatives — which produced government-sponsored guidebooks, murals, plays and more — their bill is a response to the havoc unleashed by the pandemic on cultural workers in all fields.
Here’s how a revived F.W.P., as currently envisioned, would work. Instead of hiring impoverished writers directly — as the Depression-era F.W.P. did — the new program would empower the Department of Labor to disburse $60 million in grants to an array of recipients, from academic institutions to nonprofit literary organizations, newsrooms, libraries, and communications unions and guilds.
These grantees would then hire a new corps of unemployed and underemployed writers who, like their New Deal forebears, would fan out into our towns, cities, and countryside to observe the shape of American life. They’d assemble, at the grass-roots level, a collective, national self-portrait, with an emphasis on the impact of the pandemic. The material they gathered would then be housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
The new F.W.P., in other words, would revitalize and repurpose portions of our existing cultural infrastructure. The plan is drawing support from the Authors Guild, PEN America and the Modern Language Association, as well as from labor unions. Never in the almost 80 years since the dissolution of the original F.W.P. has there been such a unified and resonant call for its return.
Then again, this is the first time in generations that writers have faced the kind of sustained economic hardships the F.W.P. was designed to address in the first place.
The best reason to support a new F.W.P. is also the most obvious. Like its predecessor, the project would be an economic rescue plan for writers, broadly defined: workers who have been grappling with a slowly unfolding crisis in their industry for at least a decade. Even before the pandemic, the combined stresses of the digital revolution, the so-called gig economy, severe cutbacks to local journalism outfits, and other related developments made writing a precarious business.
Then came 2020 and an economic shutdown that exacerbated all these trends. Not every writer felt the worst of it. Book sales went up and the most successful authors, journalists and editors continued to work relatively unimpeded. But less secure writers — and many millions of white-collar workers in writing-adjacent fields — were not so lucky.
A new F.W.P. would deliver a much-needed economic boost, especially if we follow the original project’s example and define “writers” as broadly as possible. That means throwing open the doors to librarians, publicists, fact-checkers and office assistants, as well as beat reporters, aspiring novelists and junior editors. The original F.W.P. considered all such people “writers” as long as they needed jobs and could successfully carry out the tasks of the project.
Read Mr. Borchert’s full Opinion piece here: