Skip to main content

ALERT: Social distance, stay six feet apart, wear masks, wash your hands often...

Reps. Leger Fernández and Lieu Introduce the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act

May 6, 2021


WASHINGTONToday, Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM) and Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) 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 to document the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. 

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. 

“Our country’s vibrant literary community has been deeply affected by the pandemic,” said Rep. Leger Fernández. “Our communities rely on reporters, writers, and poets to inform us and open our eyes to the realities of the world around us. As we rebuild from this pandemic, writers will play an essential role in telling our stories and tying our communities together around a shared history. I am proud to co-lead the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project alongside Representative Ted Lieu to help our storytellers inspire new generations of listeners and readers.” 

“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 Writers’ 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.”

The 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project is supported by:

David Kipen, Founder of the Libros Schmibros Nonprofit Lending Library, former NEA Director of Literature (2005-2010)

“Rep. Ted Lieu and his heroic staff have taken a 1,000-word L.A. Times essay by the founder of a nonprofit lending library and, together with my Libros Schmibros colleagues, created a bill that might just begin to unify our astonishing, divided, crazy-quilt country. I think of this bill as a form of domestic cultural diplomacy. The Federal Writers' Project's bestselling State Guides of the 1930s delighted a nation and nurtured an entire generation of great American writing. The work we’ve done to reinvent the Project will provide jobs for 900 fledgling and experienced writers of all kinds, promote reading and the humanities, preserve our elders’ endangered stories, and, at long last, help reintroduce America to itself.”

Joy Connolly, president of the American Council of Learned Societies

“The 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project represents the power of the humanities and will have an enormous impact in helping us as a society document, process, and learn from the many ways the COVID-19 experience has changed our lives. Like the Federal Writers’ Project of 1935, Americans will greatly benefit from this new program, which has enormous potential to support community rebuilding efforts, complement public health research with human-centered perspectives, and directly influence healthcare, housing, childcare, and other areas of public policy now and for generations to come. The humanities give voice to all elements of the human experience. This project is urgently needed in helping us understand what we have been through and guide us through the next steps in moving forward.”

William Ames, Emerson Collective

“In the 1930s, with our country battling the Great Depression, the Federal Writers Project put emerging writers to work capturing American life. Their oral histories, essays, and stories would inspire present and future American storytellers, from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Today, Representative Lieu’s bill will give our country the opportunity once again to empower emerging writers. I sincerely hope Congress jumps at this chance to protect the voices of America’s present and future.” 

James Fallows, co-writer of Our Towns

"The original Federal Writers' Project, during the Great Depression, is one of the brightest examples in American history of turning a crisis into an opportunity. From the nationwide hardship of that era arose classic works of reportage, narrative, and historical remembrance. A new Writers' Project would be a great opportunity to use the struggles of our current times as the basis for new reporting and understanding."

Paula M. Krebs, Executive Director, Modern Language Association

“COVID-19 has had profound effects on the employment of writers and researchers in this country, and Congressman Lieu's bill would serve the double purpose of collecting the stories of the pandemic for use by future generations and also putting back to work many of the nation's most talented writers and researchers, whose careers have been devastated by the effects of the pandemic. Students and researchers benefit daily from the work made possible by FDR's Federal Writers Project, and, with the passage of this bill, the same will be true for future generations looking to study the impact of COVID-19 on American culture and history. “

Marie Arana, Founding Literary Director, Library of Congress 

"As the inaugural Literary Director of the Library of Congress, former Editor-in-Chief of Book World at the Washington Post, and senior executive in two New York publishing houses, I’m very aware of the extraordinary influence that the original Federal Writers Project (1935-1943) had on this country’s literary history. So many of our most illustrious writers—Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, May Swenson, and many others—got their start documenting the Depression for the American Guide Series. One of the most valuable collections of the past century, the Slave Narratives, containing 2,300 first-person accounts of bondage and the families that endured it, was produced as a result. These papers and recordings are all housed at the Library of Congress for the world to see, hear, study, and use. The work has been invaluable. It enriched our country’s cultural currency immeasurably. But it also supported indigent, out-of-work writers in a time of dire need. We could use such a project again. Resuscitating this project now, in this era of COVID and conflagration, when there are so many stories to tell and so much information about this country’s experiences to glean, promises to be a rewarding undertaking. I thoroughly endorse and support this effort and hope that the fruits of this project might be available in print as well as digital form. It will rescue unemployed writers, awaken nascent talent, and energize stalled careers, but it will also contribute greatly to the historical record of the country. And I am quite sure it will take its place as an extraordinary collection in the important archives of this land."

Ayad Akhtar, novelist, playwright, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the president of PEN America

"PEN America applauds the introduction of the The 21st-Century Federal Writers' Project Act as a welcome effort to establish much-needed support for writers in America. Writers have an essential role to play in this moment of global crisis and transformation, that of excavating the truth of our past, bearing witness to our present, and imagining possible futures. We hope Congress will seize this unique opportunity and lay the groundwork for sustained, expansive, and overdue support for the creative arts."  

Ruth Dickey, Executive Director, National Book Foundation

“I wholeheartedly support the creation and funding of a New Federal Writers' Project so that today’s writers can follow in the footsteps of luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow, all of whom were employed by the original Writers' Project.  Our current moment of profound collective trauma and grief is a unique opportunity to invest in a New Federal Writers Project as an essential component of our national recovery process.  This is the perfect time to build on the legacy of the FWP and preserve stories of individuals and communities in these historic times.  This investment in writers and in the collection of stories is an investment in our civic society and shared humanity, and will benefit not only the writers and those whose stories are preserved, but will benefit us all, as well as generations of readers to come.”  

Susan D. Anderson, History Curator and Program Manager, the California African American Museum 

"The 1930s Writers' Project remains a rich source of stories, truths, and memories of the diverse, tumultuous, beautiful and challenging terrain of our country and its people. We need a new Writers' Project, to document, sing about, and remember the extraordinary people, places, and events of our time, now, and in the future.”

Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us, a novel about a Federal Writers’ Project worker on a perilous mission to write the history of a small West Virginia town

"The original Federal Writers Project may have been designed to keep writers afloat during the Depression, but its enduring legacy was unearthing the treasure of stories hidden in forgotten communities across the nation and proving to the doubtful that our country was indeed one made from many. Once again, we are sorely in need of this understanding, and once again, stories from across our disparate, desperate, diverse nation may reveal that we are many and one.  It’s past time for a 21st Century Writers’ Project." 

Jonathan Lethem, Author of The Fortress of Solitude and The Ecstasy of Influence.”

“The first Federal Writer’s Project helped illuminated our diverse and harmonic national identity in the form of the state Guides, while inscribing an essential record of remembrance in the form of the Slave Narrative collection. Out of that era of hardship came lasting contributions to our literature. There could be no more splendid and appropriate time to reenact such an enlightened gesture of American self-reflection and kinship.” 

Matthew-Lee Erlbach, Co-Founder Arts Workers United / Be An Arts Hero

“According to the latest report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Arts & Culture generates $919 billion dollars, more than all of Agriculture and Mining, combined: the American Writer is central to this massive economic engine. At this unprecedented time of great economic hardship, the 21st Century Federal Writers' Project will create and multiply American jobs across 435 congressional districts, all while capturing the voice and very soul of America at the dawn of this new era."

Background on the 1935FederalWriters’Project:

The Federal Writers' Project was created in 1935 as part of the United States Work Progress Administration to provide employment for teachers, writers, and other workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books under the name American Guide, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. Eventually new programs were developed and projects begun under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration were absorbed by the Writers' Project. From its inception in 1935 through late 1939, the Federal Writers' Project was directed by Henry Alsberg. More on the history of the Federal Writers compiled by the Library of Congress can be found here.