What if a single government initiative could (1) create fulfilling jobs for thousands of struggling Americans, (2) help irrigate “news deserts,” (3) create apprenticeships for recent humanities graduates, (4) preserve the vanishing stories of the disadvantaged and the elderly, and (5) reassure marginalized citizens that their stories are heard and valued?
Why on earth should anybody believe that one program could ever accomplish all this? The answer’s easy:
It worked the first time.
At its peak, the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project employed as many as 7,000 people, only a tenth of them professionals when the program began. It created cheap, informative, often funny, still delightful book-length “WPA Guides” to all 48 states, as well as 40 cities, 18 regions and territories, countless counties, and other, less mappable American phenomena. After dozens of local newspapers folded, the FWP reported lifesaving news of fire and flood. And it recorded the oral histories of 10,000 Americans—especially the stories of formerly enslaved people, creating by far the largest repository of its kind.
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.
John Nichols on the franchise, plus David Kipen on a new Federal Writers Project.
Voting rights suffered a defeat in the Senate this week, but really it’s just the latest battle in a continuing struggle—and if anything, it clarifies the real problem: The filibuster must go, at least for voting rights legislation. John Nichols says it’s now up to grassroots groups to go to work on reluctant Democrats during the July 4 break.
Also, here’s an idea: Create a new Federal Writers Project, hiring a thousand out-of-work writers and journalists to document American lives during the pandemic year. It’s in a bill proposed in the House by Los Angeles Representative Ted Lieu. David Kipen explains; he’s former director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, and it was his idea.
David Kipen talks with Jon Wiener, author of the revised and newly timely Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven and host of radio’s Trump Watch — recently re-christened, courtesy of Libros Schmibros’ expert naming service, Hey Joe.
Mike Davis and David Kipen discuss Los Angeles, City of Quartz and other writings which appear to be almost prophetic, viewed through the lens of COVID-19 and the current pandemic. Full interview, recorded April 2020.