In recent months, the government has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to help out banks, investment houses, insurance companies and others ensnared by the mortgage-crisis-induced financial meltdown. Auto companies might be next. Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama, after winning a convincing victory, is poised to become an FDR-like president in January, with a new New Deal designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
He should consider reviving the Federal Writers Project, a Great Depression-combating New Deal program — part of the Works Progress Administration — that lasted from 1935-1939 (in some states until 1943). Under its aegis, some 6,600 people — not all of them trained writers — found useful work. The Project created the enduring landmark series of populist American Guide books about individual states and cities, including 1943’s Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors. (There were also Federal Art, Music and Theatre Projects; the latter staged productions at the Emery Theatre.)
One reason such a project would be helpful now is that there are a growing number of unemployed writers because of the economic crisis within the newspaper industry. The online blog Paper Cuts (graphicdesignr.net/papercuts) cites more than 13,700 newspaper jobs lost just this year.
While there are plenty of journalistic and literary blogs and Web sites, they are often labors of love that generate little income. If they serve a public service, they could use a public subsidy.
A revived Federal Writers Project could subsidize existing blogs and Web sites, including those featuring creative writing. The National Endowments for Arts and Humanities could select participants based on merit. A couple million dollars a year — peanuts compared to the $20 billion the government will directly invest in financial giant CitiGroup — would probably support a lot of Internet writing projects.
But a revived Federal Writers Project could also produce something of a more permanent nature — books. That would also promote literacy. One natural mission could be to update the American Guide series, chronicling the changes our cities and states have seen — suburbanization and urban renewal, Sun Belt growth and Rust Belt struggles — in the second half of the 20th century. This would include political, cultural and social changes, too, as well as bricks and mortar, and would rely on oral histories as well as traditional research. The success of NPR’s StoryCorps shows just how accepted the oral-approach has become.
Plainly, it would be awkward for a Federal Writers Project to subsidize investigative or even hard-news reporting, since such work often is critical of the government itself. But there are other worthy projects a Federal Writers’ Project could back.
For instance, taking a cue from the growing interest in populist-oriented “everyperson” obituaries (Jim Sheeler of The Rocky Mountain News has won a Pulitzer for his work in this field), the project could document, say, a year’s worth of deaths in a given city or state. Maybe births, too — including the hopes of the parents.
Given the growth of popular culture as a means by which people identify themselves, a new phenomenon since the Great Depression, maybe a worthy project would be to collect lists, with explanation, from every adult as to their favorite books, music, movies, etc.
I’m just thinking aloud here, the point being that there is plenty of useful work that a revived Federal Writers Project could do. And there are certainly people who need the employment. More every day, it seems.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org