Since the start of the pandemic, calls for new public-service job programs have been thick on the ground. A lot of smart people felt it was a no-brainer to call government in to employ folks who were out of work, paying them to do things for the public good. If you google “new WPA,” you’ll find a ton to read, mostly calling for the revival of something like “Federal One,” the major arts-oriented initiatives that were part of the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, key to recovery from the Great Depression. CETA, the 1970’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act that supported public service jobs, doesn’t get mentioned as often, but since quite a few CETA veterans still walk among us, they are trying to remedy that, for instance, writer Charles Bernstein.
Now quite a few programs and pieces of legislation are in process to answer the call. This essay is to let you know what they are and where they stand. By way of introduction, a few things they have in common:
They mean progress. Let’s take in the fact that there has been enough buzz and demand to stimulate a number of public service jobs programs and bills. This can only be encouraging.
They are small. At its height, CETA spent $200 million a year on arts-related jobs, the equivalent of over $800 million in 2021 dollars. (CETA included many different types of employment and the total budget in 1978-9, at its height, was in the billions.) The largest of today’s programs proposes to allocate $100 million a year, about $25 million in 1978 dollars. At its peak in 1935, the WPA’s budget was $1.3 billion (not quite $26 billion today), subsidizing more than 3 million jobs at a time when the population was less than 40 percent of today’s; $27 million was for arts jobs (about half a billion in today’s dollars). The thinking by the designers of today’s programs seems straightforward; they hope to gain a foothold and reduce resistance by starting small.
Most are short-term. In some cases, this relates directly to pandemic relief: funds are being allocated to unemployed or underemployed artists for just a few months via New York’s City Artists Corps to provide engagement and entertainment after a challenging time. Others, such as the guaranteed income initiatives described below, are testing an idea for a limited term in hopes of success and future expansion. I hope these experiences generate meaningful support for ongoing programs, because as badly as we need public service jobs to provide social goods during the pandemic and its aftermath, public-spirited work that doesn’t turn a private-sector profit is always needed and should be part of ongoing public provision.
They make use of existing organizational and agency infrastructure. The WPA set up brand-new programs and created state and regional apparatus to administer them; and CETA created “prime sponsors” to screen and administer local projects. Most of today’s initiatives employ existing arts grantmaking processes and bureaucracies. Being short-term probably explains it. I feel concerned about using the National Endowment for the Arts’ system, which is typically very slow and demanding of applicants, but the NEA does have the ability to create a special streamlined process for jobs initiatives—if there’s willingness.
Almost all focus exclusively on employing or supporting artists. My consistent call has been for a program for many types of workers, like the WPA or CETA, because that is much more likely to achieve popular support than programs that single out one type of worker—artists—when so many others are hurting. As you’ll read, so far, the support for many of the jobs initiatives I’ve listed is coming from private funding and local agencies, most in places like San Francisco and New York where a strong argument is made for artists’ role in sustaining civic life and attracting tourism. Given these programs’ scale and their originators’ take on the spirit of the times, it appears that in their political calculus, pushback from those wanting jobs for other types of workers would not be fatal. Nationally, though, the story is likely to be more complicated.
Call me stubborn, an outlier, or a thorn in the side, but I freely admit that reality seldom rises to my hopes. I’ve been campaigning for decades for a new WPA offering public service jobs. Both the WPA and CETA ended when right-wing politicians objected to critical and liberatory messages being created with public funding, and as they still do, to the public sector creating jobs, something most Republicans believe should be left to private businesses (except for the military, police, and prisons, of course). But public service employment could be a permanent fixture of our commonwealth, the way most people think of library or parks and recreation programs.
You can read more about the larger questions and history at my website if you like: “It’s About Time: We Can Help Create A New WPA,” published a few months ago. Or try “The Prospect of a New WPA Wrap-up: Working for The Common Good,” the last segment of an international dialogue about public service employment.
But having quoted Voltaire—”the perfect is the enemy of the good”—as often as I have, I have no right to be petulant in the face of what dedicated and able people see as doable under incredibly trying circumstances.
I want to salute everyone who invested so much creativity and care in devising these initiatives. I plan to do all I can to support Rep. Leger Fernandez’s bills, described immediately below. The wish that will be under my pillow as I do is that each of these initiatives will be the seed of the universal, large-scale, long-term investment we need to even begin remedying the appalling excesses of a market system gone wild. I want us to be known for supporting people dedicated to social good and prepared to work for it, not for special favors for tax-dodging billionaires.
Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez (whom I was delighted to support to represent my district here in New Mexico) is sponsoring two pieces of federal legislation inspired by the WPA. H.R.3054, the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act was cosponsored with Representative Ted Lieu of California, who was inspired by an L.A. Times op-ed by writer and critic David Kipen saying that we need a new Federal Writers’ Project to “document the pandemic’s impact on American life, honor the lives lost to COVID-19, employ struggling writers and academics and create a national archive of work from our time.” If it passes, the legislation will allocate $60 million via the Department of Labor to writers through “nonprofits, libraries, news outlets and communications unions.” The bill is currently in committee.
Here’s some breaking news. On Monday, Rep. Leger Fernandez will announce the launch of the Creative Economy Revitalization Act (no bill number yet) which if funded would allocate $300 million over three years via the Department of Labor and National Endowment for the Arts for jobs and other project costs for a wide range of arts activities, from documenting COVID experiences to commissioning public art to supporting arts in education projects. Organizations and agencies would apply for project support that would enable them to employ artists. It is cosponsored by Reps Jay Obernolte (R-CA), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and others will no doubt sign on. Many arts groups have endorsed the legislation already.
State and Local Programs
New York State legislation. Last year, a piece of new WPA legislation was introduced in New York state by State Senator Rachel May and a number of cosponsors. The text specifies “establishing the New York works progress program.” Unlike others described here, it’s a wide-ranging program covering multiple types of workers, not just artists. The idea would be fund jobs that are part of proposals submitted by state agencies. Areas listed include agriculture, conservation and environmental remediation, infrastructure improvements and a range of arts activities. Jobs are to last six months, and counties with high unemployment are prioritized. The legislation is clearly pandemic-related, written to sunset “on and after the thirtieth month after the state of emergency declared by executive order 202 that began on March 7, 2020 has been lifted.” It’s been quite some time since the bill was referred to the Labor Committee, and it appears to be stuck there.
California Creative Corps Pilot Program. In June, the California State Legislature included $60 million in its 2021-22 budget summary, to be spent over three years for the California Arts Council to support the California Creative Corps Pilot Program. “California Creative Corps is an economic and workforce recovery pilot program intended to fuel positivity, regain public trust, and inspire safe and healthy behavior across California’s diverse populations through artist-led messaging disseminated via a media outreach and engagement campaign. This program will provide grants to local, regional, and statewide organizations in all 58 counties to fund unemployed and underemployed artists to create public awareness messages in support of civic engagement and community participation in multiple priority areas.” They specify pandemic recovery and “public messaging that supports water and energy conservation; emergency preparedness, relief, and recovery; social justice; and environmental justice.” Specifics of the program will be up to the California Arts Council when funding has been finalized.
New York City Artist Corps. When it was announced by Mayor de Blasio in May, I wrote about the New York City Artist Corps, a short-term initiative this summer. Now there are now more details available for the initial elements:
City Artist Corps Grants “will support NYC-based working artists who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. With New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) as lead partner working with more than a dozen re-grant and art services organizations, City Artist Corps Grants will distribute one-time $5,000 grants to more than 3,000 artists to help them sustain their practice and engage the public across New York City’s five boroughs this summer and fall, beginning in July. Artists working in any discipline are eligible to apply.” The third round of applications opened last week. Details at NYFA’s website.
City Canvas: “Through City Artist Corps, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the nonprofit ArtBridge will commission 60 artists to install temporary public murals and other artwork on sidewalk sheds and construction fencing throughout the city’s public housing system. ArtBridge will build on their program Bridging the Divide, which consists of artist fellowships at NYCHA developments throughout the city in which artists design temporary public artworks that reflect the lives, histories, and aspirations of NYCHA residents. Artworks will be affixed to construction fencings/sheds that are currently up at each of the locations, as made possible through DCLA’s City Canvas pilot initiative. Submissions through ArtBridge close at the end of August.
NeON Arts, “a program of the NYC Department of Probation in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, offers young people in New York City the chance to explore the arts through workshops in a variety of artistic disciplines. This summer, thanks in part to City Artist Corps, NeON Arts will recruit more than 300 young people ages 18–24 to Beautify NYC, collaborative arts programs for young people that transform public spaces into artistic spaces.” A bit more information here.
Summer Rising Mural and Performing Arts Partnerships: The Department of Education, in partnership with local school leadership, will work with more than 400 artists at over 200 schools to engage Summer Rising students in collaborative mural making and performing arts activities that enrich summer programming. You’ll find Summer Rising here, but I don’t see any details about this initiative at their site.
Artists at Work (AAW) describes itself this way: “Inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, ARTISTS AT WORK (AAW) is a new program designed to give artists resources to continue to produce work during the immediate health and economic crisis brought by COVID, and to build new structures and partnerships that will help to sustain the creative sector in a post-pandemic America. Conceived by THE OFFICE performing arts + film in collaboration with the FreshGrass Foundation as a public/private partnership that combines government, corporate, and foundation support, AAW is a WPA for the arts reimagined into a modern context that is sensitive to the 21st century landscape (now drastically changed) of every artistic discipline’s place in the culture.”
The website profiles six artists selected for the pilot program in western Massachusetts. There aren’t specific numbers, but the site says that “Participating artists receive a living wage salary, calculated using the MIT Living Wage Calculator for their respective region, for a period of one year, as well as full health care benefits. Following their participation in the program, they are eligible for unemployment benefits, and may continue healthcare coverage under COBRA if they choose.
I hadn’t heard of the living wage calculator before, but I went there for a reality-check. It’s lean: if mine were a single-person household here in New Mexico, around $15 per hour would be my living wage, but it goes up if there are two adults and/or children.
AAW was recently granted $3 million by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to add a total of 42 jobs in three more regions.
Creatives Rebuild New York. The Mellon Foundation announced in June that it was setting aside $125 million for an initiative called “Creatives Rebuild New York,” comprising a guaranteed income initiative for up to 2,400 artists with financial need whose primary residence is in New York state. In addition, an employment program will support “a full-time base salary expected to be commensurate with New York State median income data plus benefits for jobs at small to midsized community arts organizations in New York state.” Details are expected to be forthcoming at the end of August. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) and Ford Foundation each contributed a few million to the initiative as well.
Guaranteed Income Experiments
Across the country, some communities are beginning to advocate for some form of guaranteed income, such as the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, providing $500 per month for 24 months to 125 randomly selected residents and the City of St. Paul, Minnesota’s program aimed at families impacted by the pandemic and participating in the city’s college savings account initiative. A fund for unhoused people is launching this month, supported by private donations. A group of city leaders from across the U.S. has formed Mayors for a Guaranteed Income to advance the concept, and quite a few cities have adopted resolutions in favor of it. There are some interesting resources at the site.
Most of these efforts are targeted for low-income folks, regardless of the type of work they do. But two programs specifically earmarked for artists are underway. This past spring, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco announced its Guaranteed Income Pilot, providing $1,000 per month to 130 artists facing economic challenges, most “rooted in a historically marginalized community.” In May, a foundation started by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey added $3.5 million to the pool, extending the program from six to 18 months.
Springboard for the Arts is supporting 25 artists impacted by the pandemic in two St. Paul, MN, neighborhoods with $500 a month for 18 Months. The program is funded by the Minnesota-based McKnight and Bush Foundations.
If you know of other relevant programs in the works, please please contact me.
“Nobody Makes Money” by Fantastic Negrito.