Lawmakers Propose New Federal Writers Project

new Federal Writers Project
Reps. Lieu and Fernandez’ Federal Writers Project Act comes 86 years after the original project (Image by: Cottonbro)

US Representatives Ted Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced legislation to create a new Federal Writers Project.

That program is inspired by a Depression-era program that gave writers, such as Zora Neal Hurston, John Cheever, and Ralph Ellison their start.

The original Federal Writers Project was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was developed as part of the New Deal. It ran from 1935 to 1939 and reportedly employed around 6,000 people, including writers, editors, fact-checkers, and historians.

The federal government paid those individuals to create the WPA Guides, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States at that time. Those guides captured the image of what it was like in 48 states and also in some cities, regions, and territories at that time.

Those WPA guides are credited for telling stories that may have been untold voices and giving voices to Americans who would have likely been overlooked.

Hurston, for example, interviewed many formerly enslaved people for her work on the project and later published some of those chronicles in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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The New Federal Writers Project

On the WPA’s 86th anniversary, Lieu and Fernandez introduced a new version in the 21st Century Federal Writers Project Act.

The bill calls for a grant program for unemployed and underemployed writers and journalists.

An estimated 36,000 workers at news outlets have been laid off or had their positions reduced. And these numbers do not account for freelance and gig writers, says the statement announcing the bill.

According to Lieu, this program would address mass unemployment and “capture invaluable stories American stories that may otherwise go untold,” like the original project.

“We have an opportunity to not only employ a lot of people but also to document all the different stories,” and “to make sure we record — while it’s fresh in peoples minds — what’s transpired during this pandemic. And I think that is something that can get bipartisan support,” Lieu told the LA Times.

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Conception, Support, & Likelihood

According to the Times, the idea for the new Federal Writers Project was conceived in the Spring of 2020 by David Kipen, formerly the literature director of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Kipen was thinking about a combination of things: friends lost to COVID, his UCLA creative writing students who didn’t have internships or jobs, the decline of small newspapers, and the rifts dividing the nation.

He remembered the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, gathered his thoughts of how it could be revamped for the 21st century, and started sending out emails– 1,002 to be exact, according to the LA Times.

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, was also an early promoter of the idea.

“The original WPA recognized that culture workers were as essential to the economy as bridge builders. To respond to our current crisis, Congress should pass a further stimulus package that creates jobs directly, as did the WPA, and it should include job-creation money aimed at the arts and the humanities,” she wrote in an April 2020 opinion piece for CNN.

By the summer of 2020, Lieu’s office was working on developing legislation to bring those ideas to life.

And here we are with legislation on the table.

Organizations, such as the Author’s Guild, MLA, PEN America, and Progressive Democrats for America endorse the proposal.

But some suggest making it happen is a long-haul effort.

Making the argument that this is useful and important work will be a “job” for legislators, according to June Hopkins, a retired history professor and granddaughter of WPA architect Harry Hopkins.

The LA Times said a lot would have to happen for the bill to become law, including having a House committee research and tweak the language, then discussions, tweaking and votes in both the House and Senate.

And given that the Senate is divided, the chances of his passing “aren’t good,” the article says.

But what do you think? Is this a good idea? Is it likely to happen? And if it did, do you think a significant portion of the funding would make its way to emerging writers and freelancers? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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4 thoughts on “Lawmakers Propose New Federal Writers Project

  1. This sounds like it could do a lot of good, and the world needs more perspectives, it would be fantastic if it works out!

    1. The world could definitely use more perspectives and writers could definitely use the opportunities.

  2. Why not? The economy got hit so much by Covid that every bits help. The goods come with it probably over weights all the long haul mentioned, which isn’t that common to any bills anyway?

  3. This sounds like and incredible project and a great way to give a boost to the writing community including both those that are working (or were working) in the corporate world and those that are freelancing. I’m excited to hear that they are making steps in the right direction and can’t wait to see what comes from all of this!

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