Opinion: A New Deal for Writers in America – New York Times

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.

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Editorial: It’s time for a new Federal Writers’ Project

Sarah Gulder's life story was taken down and recorded as part of the Slave Narratives initiative of the WPA Federal Writers' Project.

By The Times Editorial Board
June 20, 2021

The narrative of Sarah Gulder, who had been born into slavery, was collected by the New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project in 1936. A bill in Congress would revive the program.(Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group ) By The Times Editorial Board June 20, 2021 3 AM PT

There is no denying that America took it in the teeth with the COVID-19 pandemic and related financial crisis, a one-two combination that was disproportionate in its impacts. And it had particularly dire consequences for journalism, adding to strains on a business model that relies on advertising and readers to stay afloat.

Between 2008 and 2019, nearly 1 in 4 newsroom jobs disappeared, according to the Pew Research Center. Since the onset of the pandemic, one-third of large-city newspapers reported fresh layoffs. And that doesn’t measure the hits endured by freelancers as outlets’ budgets dried up.

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REPS LIEU AND LEGER FERNANDEZ INTRODUCE THE 21ST CENTURY FEDERAL WRITERS’ PROJECT ACT

WASHINGTON – Today, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) and Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) introduced legislation that would create a new grant program administered by the Department of Labor to hire America’s unemployed and underemployed journalists and writers. In April 2020, the New York Times estimated that 36,000 workers at news outlets had been laid off, or had their positions reduced, and these numbers do not account for freelance and gig writers. Inspired by the 1935 Federal Writers’ Project of the New Deal Era, the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act will help address the mass unemployment of writers. It will also create a nationally administered and searchable repository that archives the stories of America’s history. 

“I am pleased to introduce the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act today to coincide with the 86th Anniversary of the original Works Progress Administration, including the Federal Writer’s Project,” said Rep. Lieu. “This program will revive the Federal Writers’ Project of the New Deal Era by creating a new grant program to hire America’s unemployed and underemployed writers. Many writers were laid off or had their work reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, many young people have graduated into an economy that has not been able to provide opportunities to leverage their skill sets. My bill would create a new jobs program for these talented and high skilled individuals, while allowing them to capture invaluable American stories that may otherwise go untold. The New Federal Writers Program will be vital to our economic recovery to build back better.”

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