Mary Poppins: In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap, the jobs again.
Sarah Gonzalez: This famous song from Mary Poppins, here's how it came about. Back in the 1960s, during production of the film, the songwriter's son was scared of getting shots, but when his school placed the oral vaccine for polio on a sugar cube, the boy took the vaccine without a problem. This inspired Richard Sherman and the boy's father, Robert Sherman, to write Spoonful of Sugar, a little something to help the medicine go down.
Sarah: The story behind this song gives us a little glimpse into just how broad and creative some of the efforts were to encourage polio vaccinations, and everything from subtle messaging in a song to official public service announcements have throughout history been used to encourage certain behaviors to improve public health.
Speaker 1: You can avoid all the expense, suffering, and heartache that paralytic polio causes if you make use of the vaccine that is now available.
Speaker 2: Don't let that be you or someone you know. Stop the clot, spread the word.
Speaker 3: Protect yourself and your loved ones this flu season. Get a flu shot today.
Speaker 4: Let's stop HIV together.
Speaker 5: Myth destroys, the high is a lie.
Speaker 6: I get angry, just thinking about it makes me mad. Little kids doing drugs. It turns my stomach, it's the hurts.
Sarah: Past and recent PSA's like this are meant to nudge us in the right direction, and sometimes the nudge can involve the chance to win a prize or win some money. Here in the US to encourage you to donate plasma, for example, some centers offer up to $60 twice a week. With the rise in vaccine hesitancy around the COVID vaccine, we're seeing businesses and states try to encourage vaccinations with little extra nudges like these, incentives from companies offering workers perks for getting vaccinated to businesses offering a free pizza and a shot if you get your shot or free french fries for a month every time you show your vaccination card.
This week, the Republican governor of Ohio announced that teens in the state who get vaccinated could win free tuition, a full-ride college scholarship, and vaccinated adults will be entered into a $1 million lottery every week, for five weeks one adult will win a $1 million in Ohio. The point is to encourage residents to get the vaccine. Some even say the new guidance from the CDC this week could be viewed as an incentive of sorts, vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most places. Do incentives like this actually work?
I'm Sarah Gonzalez, host and reporter at NPR's Planet Money podcast in for Tanzina Vega. Breaking down vaccine incentives is where we start today on The Takeaway. For more on this, we talk to Stacy Wood, Langdon Distinguished University Professor of Marketing at North Carolina State University. Stacy, welcome to the show.
Stacy Wood: Thanks. Glad to be here.
Sarah: Also, with us is Emily Largent, the Emanuel and Robert Hart Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Emily, great to have you with us also.
Emily Largent: Thank you.
Sarah: Okay, Stacy, let's zoom in on one of these programs for just a minute. Ohio's Vax-a-Million lottery program. What do you think of giving people the chance to become a millionaire just for getting the vaccine?
Stacy: I think it's actually a fairly effective use of dollars, which I think is a surprising thing to say given many people's reaction to the lottery. The thing that many people don't realize is that advertising costs a lot of money. The Ad Council in the US has spent over $50 million and has gotten, I think, over $400 million in contributed ad spend to get out the message, to make PSA's. If you think about taking $1 million and making it a lottery, that might move some people who think of the vaccine as something that's not a bad thing to do, just not the top of their priority list.
Sarah: A $1 million in the context of tens of millions of dollars on a public service announcement or on public service announcements seems like a pretty good deal in this case, then?
Stacy: Yes. I think that the thing that is often overlooked is that there are lots of different reasons why people don't get the vaccine. Some of them are truly worried and scared about what long-term side effects may occur. Others may have some really deep-seated philosophical reason against vaccines or medical care, but for many people, it's just not top of the priority list. It's not something that they feel is really urgent for them to do. A little perk like this is actually quite fun.
I think there are people who actually drive to other states to buy real lottery tickets. I don't know that Ohio was allowing other people to come into their state to qualify for the lottery, but we've already seen that people are willing to spend their own money at a chance at a $1 million. Here a little shot in the arm might not be such a bad thing.
Sarah: Yes, people wait in long lines, they went on the phone for hours just for the chance to win a lot less money. Emily, in the Journal of the American Medical Association you wrote that "In general, there are problems with paying people to get vaccinated for COVID-19." What are some of the concerns you have?
Emily: Sure. I would agree with what Stacy said that when we offer payment to people, we're not necessarily addressing core concerns they have like misinformation or mistrust. When we offer payment in these contexts because we're not addressing those core issues, we're unlikely to move those individuals.
Another thing that can happen is that we have good evidence from behavioral economics that when we offer people money to do things, it can make that thing seem riskier or more burdensome than it actually is. Right now we have good evidence that getting a vaccine is safe, it's effective, it protects us, it protects our communities, but people often see things like a $1 million as perhaps too good to be true. We might reinforce concerns they already have, or in some cases, we might create new concerns.
Sarah: Also, this could backfire. People can say like, "There must be some risk here. Otherwise, why would they pay me to do this?"
Emily: I think it will make some people a little suspicious.
Sarah: Do you have any examples you can point to where offering money of any amount has been counterproductive?
Emily: Well, sometimes we see this in human subjects research, when you pay people money to participate in research, it can actually signal to them that there is risk, and they read consent forms more carefully. They think about it a little bit harder.
Sarah: Why don't you tell us, Emily, about what some of the evidence-based incentive strategies are that we know do a good job of encouraging people to do something like get vaccinated?
Emily: Well, in terms of strategies to get people vaccinated, I think a lot of things are important like we need to overcome any financial barriers people have. Right now there are some people who say they aren't being vaccinated because they're worried about missing time from work, particularly if they have side effects. We should be offering paid time off of work, covering expenses related to getting to the vaccine side effects a barrier for people.
Then there are a lot of non-incentive strategies that need to be employed. We should be thinking about great public health messaging that really addresses those core concerns people have that can't be addressed by financial means. We need to be really actively listening to communities, finding trusted leaders, getting vaccines to where people are with mobile clinics. They're these evidence-based strategies that aren't as exciting as lotteries, but are going to be a huge part of how we move the needle, so to speak, on COVID vaccines.
Sarah: Stacy, what is the range of, let's say, more creative maybe non-tested incentives being offered up right now across the country?
Stacy: One of the things that is interesting is to see how diverse the incentives are. If we speak just of incentives, not of some of the other important behavioral strategies that Emily mentioned, we see everything from sure thing payments like $50 in hand, or we see crazy incentives, I call it crazy. I also call it delicious, the Krispy Kreme offer for free donut every day for a year.
All of these are coming from different sources who are trying to contribute in some way in their own special way to the incentive cause, whether it's free beer, whether it's sporting events. I really like the diversity of incentives because I think they address the diversity of hurdles that people have to get vaccinated. If you think about someone like Emily mentioned, who has difficulty getting transportation to the vaccination site or getting time off or childcare to cover them during that time period, $50 in hand may be perfect.
For somebody who is really not convinced that they personally need the vaccine, they're young, they're active, they're healthy, then a sporting event might seem like a lot of fun
Stacy: -- I know that when I announced to my college class, that Krispy Kreme had decided to give everyone a free donut a day for vaccination. I asked the class what they thought and all the hands went up and when I called on someone, the question was, "Is there a vaccination site on campus?" It is interesting to see what moves us. I know people who have signed up for credit cards for a free slice of pizza and a free T-shirt.
Sarah: Oh, yes. I'm still getting the mail from one of my first credit cards that I believe was some not so great perk that convinced me to sign up for it.
Stacy: Yes, exactly. The cool thing here though is that Kevin Schulman and I wrote a paper that was published in the New England Journal of medicine in January about 12 comprehensive behaviorally-based strategies for promoting the vaccine. One of them was create fear of missing out or FOMO. That's the idea of incentives. This is just one thing within a more comprehensive strategy. However, we envisioned at that time that there would be one overriding institution that would coordinate all of these strategies and put them all out there.
It's interesting to me to see that the beauty of it happening in this shotgun style with everybody just coming up with their own incentives, is that it really actually matches the heterogeneity of the population and what's interesting to them, should this be fun? Should this be less worrisome-making? Should it be something that is really practical? Should it be something that's just a sugary treat? There seemed to be such a variety of incentives that matched the variety of people who we're trying to address.
Sarah: Emily, I'm curious, do you know what tends to work when you're trying to encourage new behavior, the carrot approach or the stick approach?
Emily: Certainly, in vaccines, we have carrots and sticks available to us. We've talked a lot about perhaps not the carrot, but the donut or the French fry dangling out in front of us. The stick approach here would be mandates so that could be your employer telling you that you have to have the vaccine, that could be the state telling you that you need to have your child vaccinated.
At some point, when children are eligible before they can go to school or your college telling you, you need to be vaccinated. In cases like that, oftentimes in ethics, we say that there needs to be a voluntary period of uptake before we think about instituting the mandates. Carrots are a great start, but there are some people who when surveyed say that they will only take the vaccine or are much more likely to take it if they're told they have to take it. I do think that we'll see a combination of carrots and sticks.
Sarah: Emily, are the ethical or moral complications inherent in incentive programs, especially monetary ones, is that the main issue?
Emily: I don't think that it's only in money, but certainly money can be uncomfortable for people to think about or talk about and so we might think that those are more concerning situations.
Sarah: Emily, we know that vaccine access has been an issue and that there are disparities in who has been able to get vaccinated. Do incentive programs address that at all or does it maybe do the opposite and contribute further?
Emily: The solution really needs to fit the problem in addressing vaccine uptake. It's important not to blame groups who have not yet had high rates of vaccination, particularly when they have access issues and incentives aren't going to help them overcome barriers that exist like the lack of vaccine sites in their community, or difficulty getting time off of work to get vaccinated. Again, we need to really be tailoring strategies to meet people and address their particular barriers or concerns.
Sarah: Stacy, as someone who studies consumer behavior and marketing, did you expect that we would reach this point where we're seeing a push for incentives like this?
Stacy: Yes, I did in the fall of 2020, even before the vaccines were available, my co-author Kevin Schulman and I started talking about the eventual need to promote the vaccine to those who either would not get the vaccine or would want to wait to get the vaccine. We started to talk about these strategies to promote vaccination and early on a lot of people in organizations and in the government were really resistant thinking, "Well, our first thing is to get access to people and we are concerned about there being too much demand where demand is greater than supply."
It was hard to imagine a day when supply would be greater than demand, but here we are. Other countries looking at us right now are surely thinking, "Oh, those crazy Americans, they're having to pay people to get the shots that we don't even have." There will come a time too in their countries where the supply outpaces demand, and they too will be thinking about incentives of all manner, not just financial incentives.
There have been many situations in the diffusion of innovation that the adoption of any innovation is just slower than we expect, even when it's a wonderful thing. If you look at flu shots, the uptake for flu shots in the US, I don't think is very much more than 50%, and that's a very well-established easily accessible, oftentimes free, or low-cost vaccine that's available to us. If we look just at that as an analogy, we can see that we're really actually at a pretty big marketing challenge to get 80% of the population to do something.
Sarah: Emily, as Stacy said, there are other parts of the world are in dire need of vaccines and yet here we are in the US trying to offer free donuts and possible lottery wins to encourage people to use our supply. Is this a uniquely American thing, or how do you think these programs appear to the rest of the world?
Emily: Sure. To Stacy's point that other countries are going to find themselves at a place where they're also trying to induce demand by offering incentives or thinking about creative strategies. In Romania right now, you can actually go to Dracula's Castle and get free entry into the torture exhibits if you get a shot in the arm rather than a stake in the heart.
Certainly, there will be that kind of creative thinking internationally, but I would say that it really is-- As an ethicist, I have to say, I look around with a lot of disappointment that people aren't rolling up their sleeves and doing the right thing. I think it's really a moral failing and a tremendous amount of privilege that we have this excess of vaccines right now while so much of the world is still waiting to have their first doses.
Sarah: Emily, what might these incentive programs mean down the line? Could they create some long-term problems for public health that we should be concerned about?
Emily: One of the concerns I have is that the CDC is already thinking about whether or not people are going to need booster shots. Certainly, there's been research happening into the potential use of boosters against different variants already. If we offer some of these incentives, particularly the cash and larger payment incentives, I worry that we habituate people to getting that spoonful of sugar to get the medicine to go down and that we might actually have challenges in future vaccination campaigns if people are holding out, waiting to see if there's going to be some perk if they wait a little bit longer, and that can build inefficiency, I think, into the systems as well as increase costs.
Sarah: Stacy, it's probably too soon to know, but do you have a sense of how much of a dent these incentives could make? How much they could increase vaccinations in the US?
Stacy: I think it's hard to predict that because we actually don't know the size of the population that is not getting the vaccine strictly because of just putting it off. We might have people who when they're surveyed and people say, "Oh, are you going to get the vaccine? Are you not likely to get the vaccine?" We have all of these intention measures that are being taken across our country. People often say, "I may get it," and then when they're asked why they're waiting they say, "I'm concerned about safety."
While lots of people are concerned about safety, some portion of those people are likely people who aren't as concerned about safety, but that is a really logical, socially desirable way to answer the question. We don't have a sense of who's out there, who's just like, "I'm going to get around to it." I just don't really think it's that big of a deal, or I don't really think I need it. I could get it if I'm ever like forced to buy a mandate, but a nice carrot might be more persuasive. That's what is going to be interesting to see, is how many people this move will give us some sense of how big that more apathy-based population is.
Sarah: Stacy Wood is a Professor of Marketing at North Carolina State University and Emily Largent is an Assistant Professor of Medical, Ethics, and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy and Emily. Thank you both for joining us.
Stacy: Thank you.
Emily: Thank you.
Tony: Hi, this is Tony from Greenville, South Carolina. My employer CityRange Steakhouse Grill also located in Greenville, South Carolina, has an incentive for all of its employees. Once you are fully vaccinated, they will give you a $50 bonus. Very nice to them. However, I would still have gotten fully vaccinated without the bonus because I'm not an anti-vaxxer.
Janie Starr: My name is Janie Starr. I live on Vashon Island in Washington State. I was one of the first ones in line to get my jabs. I did it for personal safety as well as for the community at large. I support most anything legitimate to encourage folks to get vaccinated, as long as it's culturally sensitive, and no one is getting gouged. I'd rather people were receiving the education they need to overcome their reluctance, but ultimately, we just need to get it done. Thanks.
Sarah: More and more republican led states are planning to opt-out of the enhanced federal unemployment programs before they're set to expire in September. These benefits include an extra $300 a week for those collecting unemployment and extended eligibility for self-employed and gig workers. The program has been in effect since March 2020 after former President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act, and they were extended under President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan.
Some Republican governors say they don't want the extra $300 for residents anymore, why not? For that and more we're talking to Greg Iacurci personal finance reporter at CNBC. Greg, welcome back to the show.
Greg Iacurci: Hi, thank you for having me.
Sarah: Greg, more than a dozen states have announced their intentions to opt-out of the enhanced federal unemployment benefits, do you have a sense of how many people will be affected by this?
Greg: Yes, actually, as of Thursday, it had reached at least 16 states. That's going to affect nearly two million individuals.
Sarah: Tell us about the states that are opting out. Is this falling along partisan lines?
Greg: Yes, to date, all of the states that have opted out are led by Republican governors so it seems to be breaking out along partisan lines at this point.
Sarah: To be clear, the money for this has been set aside from the federal government, states are just turning it down, what is the argument from these states?
Greg: Yes, this is federal money that the states are turning down, and they're exiting these programs about two to two and a half months ahead of time. These benefits were supposed to last or they're available to workers through Labor Day, September 6th. These governors are claiming that labor shortages are the reason for their decisions. They're saying that these enhanced unemployment benefits are offering an incentive for people to stay home, essentially stay on the sidelines, they're getting paid a decent amount of money to stay home instead of go out and find a job.
Sarah: Right. The argument on the right is that unemployment benefits are just too good right now, it's going to make people not want to come back to work. They say this is why we're seeing labor shortages right now, even though there doesn't seem to be any substantial evidence showing that unemployment benefits are causing these labor shortages, what is really driving the labor shortage, Greg?
Greg: It's a complicated picture, which makes this confusing. Economists point to a number of things. Unemployment benefits maybe playing a small role here. Research shows that higher unemployment benefits do tend to generally have a bit of a disincentive effect and lead to fewer job applications when people are getting higher benefits, so that could be playing a role.
The economists I've spoken with don't think it's the primary factor though. Largely they think it's being driven by coronavirus still and the effects of the virus. You have health concerns still, infection rates are still in the tens of thousands of new cases a day. You have vaccinations among working-age adults are still relatively low and so you have those health concerns people might still feel uneasy about going back to work under those circumstances.
The coronavirus also lead to other labor effects too that are unique in this current crisis. You have childcare needs. Kids may need to stay home from school, still, there may be hybrid learning or remote learning, and parents need to stay home to watch over them. The COVID also caused some early retirements among baby boomers, maybe because they were laid off or they were just afraid to get sick at the workplace and it's not clear that those baby boomers are going to readily come back into the workforce. There are a number of things that could be leading to these labor shortages.
Sarah: Greg, do you know how residents in these states feel about this?
Greg: Well, I think you have two different points of view, you have the business community, which has largely cheered these decisions, and then you have the workers themselves who feel like they're being left out in the cold here. They may have been budgeting for two to two and a half additional months of benefits, and now they're being cut off. Of course, the business community feels that these enhanced benefits have been keeping people on the sidelines to a certain extent.
Sarah: Are there specific workers in these dates that this will affect more than others?
Greg: It does appear that the minority workers will be more affected than others and that's largely because those groups of workers have been disproportionately impacted by layoffs across the country and in states that are pulling out early from these benefit programs in upwards of 50%, 60%, sometimes of unemployment recipients in these states are Black workers. It does look like there's going to be a disproportionate impact.
Sarah: Many of the states opting out are among the least wealthy in the United States. When would all of this take effect? Do residents lose benefits immediately, or months from now?
Greg: At the earliest, June 12th, it varies by state, the earliest states are going to be June 12th and then as late as July 10th. It seems like anywhere from mid-June to early to mid-July.
Sarah: I imagine states are still keeping their own unemployment benefits in place even though they're opting out of the federal benefits.
Greg: Yes, that is true. Residents will still be getting their weekly state benefits, they will not be getting that extra $300, and usually, state benefits replace around 50% of pre-layoff wages so people would definitely be taking a pay cut there. Also, something important to note is that self-employed and gig workers and long-term unemployed individuals who have been collecting benefits for generally more than six months will be cut off from benefits entirely in most circumstances. Again, it varies by state. There are some states like Arizona, where that's not the case, but all of their benefits right now are being paid with federal money and so they'd be losing that entirely.
Sarah: Right so state unemployment benefits don't replace your full salary usually, it's a percentage of what you used to make. Are there any concerns about states running out of money to pay their residents unemployment benefits?
Greg: No, I don't believe so. States can borrow from the federal government to pay benefits if their trust funds run dry so I don't think that in and of itself is a concern.
Sarah: Okay. Do workers in these states have any options to fight this? Can the US Labor Department maybe prevent the loss of these benefits?
Greg: I'm not aware of any recourse that the workers themselves have in this situation, but the Labor Department may be able to do something. Senator Bernie Sanders and a group called the National Employment Law Project, have each sent letters to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and they claim that the labor secretary has the legal authority and indeed needs to step in.
The language in the CARES Acts suggests that he has an obligation to step in to prevent states from cutting off this aid to people under a certain program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. This is the program that pays benefits to self-employed and gig workers and others who are typically ineligible for state benefits. That's the only program where this seems to apply, where he may have the legal authority to do something. It's unclear whether there will be any intervention on behalf of workers. The Labor Department is still reviewing those letters to see if they can do anything.
Sarah: Greg Iacurci is a personal finance reporter at CNBC. Thanks, Greg.
Greg: Thank you so much.
Congresswoman Elise Stefanik: I'm very excited for this opportunity. We are unified working as one team, and the American people know that the stakes are incredibly high. We're going to fight for them each and every day against the destructive radical far-left socialist agenda of President Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi that's destroying America.
Sarah: That was Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York after being elected on Friday as the third-ranking Republican in the House. She's replacing Liz Cheney who was voted out as chair of the House GOP Conference earlier this week, Cheney had drawn ire from her Republican colleagues for denouncing President Donald Trump. She was one of 10 Republican members of the House that voted to impeach him for incitement of insurrection. Stefanik, who was elected in 2014 as a young moderate Republican has in recent years, embraced Donald Trump and has participated in attempts to sow doubt about the result of the general election.
How did Rep Stefanik from moderate Republican to staunch Trump ally? What does her rise signal about the direction the party is heading in? Here with us to answer these questions is Charlotte Alter a senior correspondent for Time Magazine and author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For, for which she spoke to Rep Stefanik. Charlotte, thank you for joining us.
Charlotte Alter: Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah: Charlotte, how did Representative Elise Stefanik get in the running for Cheney's old position?
Charlotte: Representative Stefanik is somebody who has been considered a rising star in the GOP for almost her whole career, but the meaning of that has changed. She is somebody who in the last two years, or really the last 18 months has really emerged as a staunch Trump advocate that started during the 2019 impeachment hearings where she was one of his most vociferous defenders and it continued through the 2020 election when she co-chaired his New York campaign and gave a speech about him at the DNC, sorry, at the RNC.
She's somebody who as soon as it became clear that Liz Cheney was out of step with the Republican line on the election, her refusal to embrace Trump's conspiracy theories about a stolen election really put her at odds with the reality of the Republican base, it was clear the party was going to want to replace her and it would be very bad optics for them to replace the only woman in party leadership right now with another man. Stefanik was the obvious replacement since she's this up-and-coming young woman who has really made it her business to try to get more women elevated within the GOP.
Sarah: How is the Rep Stefanik that sits in Congress now different from the one that was elected to office in 2014?
Charlotte: They're almost entirely different people. Here's the way to think about it. I talked to Representative Stefanik for my book in 2018 and 2019 and back then she was still this more moderate millennial Republican that was pretty similar to why she ran for office in the first place. She back then was who was certainly not a MAGA Trump supporter. She had been a Bush Republican. She had been a Paul Ryan Republican and early in Trump's presidency, she had a tepid relationship with Trumpism.
She supported the Republican nominee. She supported the president, but every time Trump would do something really outrageous or controversial, she would issue these mild statements rebuking him. She wouldn't really get into the fray on Twitter in his defense. She was really moderate on issues like climate change and immigration and LGBTQ rights and college affordability. That's partly because she recognized early that the Republican Party had a big problem with young people, women, and people of color.
Her first two terms were really about trying to bring the Republican Party in line with her generation. Then, at a certain point and I track this at time profile of her at a certain point around 2018 and then finally in 2019, she really saw the writing on the wall as her fellow young moderate conservatives who had been critical of Trump fell in the midterms. She saw that the only way to rise within the Republican party was to embrace Trumpism wholeheartedly.
Sarah: In an article you published recently you wrote that "Her evolution mirrors the transformation of her party while her rise within its rank is a fall from the modern millennial conservatism she once was on track to define." Who is the modern millennial conservative? What policies do they support? How are they different than the rest of the party?
Charlotte: One of the big challenges for the Republican Party right now is that in 2014, 2015, early 2016, there was this cohort of young, moderate conservatives who were essentially trying to offer conservative solutions to common millennial priorities and problems. One of the things that was a big takeaway in my book, which covers millennial leaders on both sides of the aisle, is that this generation largely agrees on what most of the big problems are. It's just that people in different sizes of the aisle were offering different solutions to them.
For example, Elise Stefanik, she believes in the science of climate change, she introduced a resolution in 2017 saying that the Republican Party needed to take climate change more seriously, that it was a conservative principle to defend the environment. She obviously has a very different policy solution than something like The Green New Deal, which is what millennial Progressive's embrace, but my takeaway from reporting on this was that most millennials agree on the problems, but not the solutions. Elise Stefanik seems to have really abandoned that model in favor of fully embracing Trump and Trumpism.
Sarah: Charlotte, thank you so much for joining us.
Charlotte: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: Charlotte Alter is a senior correspondent for Time Magazine and author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America. The paperback version of her book will be available next week.
Earlier this month, Congressman Ted Lieu of California introduced a bill that would create a 21st century Federal Writers' Project inspired by the Federal Writers' Project of the New Deal, but original Writers' Project began amid the Great Depression in 1935 under the United States Works Progress Administration. It employed writers, historians, and teachers to document different parts of US culture and history that had previously been pushed to the margins.
Some of the writers who got their starts through the program went on to become literary icons, including Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Cheever. There were many programs like this that put people to work during the Great Depression, the radio program This Was News was also funded under the works progress administration's federal theater project, it dramatized historical news events.
Speaker 2: New York City, March 25th, 1911, on the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors of a building at the Northwest corner of Washington and Green Streets, over 200 people mostly girls employed by the Triangle Waste Company who had worked today with just five minutes before quitting time-
Sarah: If passed into law, the new 21st century Federal Writers' Project introduced by Congressman Lieu would again pay hundreds of writers to document different aspects of the pandemic, creating a record for current and future generations to learn from. With me now to discuss is David Kipen founder of the Libros Schmibros lending library in Los Angeles and former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts. An article he published last May in the Los Angeles Times inspired Congressman Lieu to create this bill and David was also involved in the drafting process. David, thank you so much for being here.
David Kipen: Oh, hi, Sarah, you're welcome.
Sarah: Tell us a little bit more about how this idea went from an op-ed to an actual piece of legislation.
David: It was last April, I think, as matters were getting increasingly awful around the country and a couple of my friends were dying and my students were going to graduate right back into their high school bedrooms despite their writing talents. As a journalist for a lot of my life, I saw my colleagues losing jobs, losing hours, newspapers themselves, and what's come to be called news deserts going under and all the older Americans who were dying in nursing homes with nobody to tell her stories too and the cultural memory we were losing because of it.
I pitched an op-ed to friends at the LA Times, actually, it was a feature, but secretly it was an op-ed, calling for the return of the writer's project. Somebody showed it to Congressman Lieu and he told his chief of staff, "This sounds like a pretty good idea, get right on it," and here we are a year later. Nobody is more astonished at all of this than I am.
Sarah: What kinds of writings came out of the original Writers' Project?
David: Oh God, it's an all-star team. I think you mentioned Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston who had been fairly famous beforehand but was up against it during the depression like so many people, John Cheever, Saul Bellow. It's really a murderer's row of American writing talent. In the 40 years before the Writers Project, America won one Nobel Prize, in the 80 years afterward, it won about 10, including Saul Bellow, who is himself an alumnus of the project. The effects on American literature ever since have been monumental.
Sarah: Some of the works that came out of this included interviewing formerly enslaved people who were still alive in the 30s. What kinds of writing projects would you like to come out of this new version? Are we talking about novel set during the pandemic or sitcoms even?
David: I'd like to think novelists and sitcom writers can take care of themselves. No, the idea is to document American lives, American voices as it was originally. Oral history was barely a thing in the 1930s until the project sent writers out into the field to listen to Americans and make sure their voices weren't lost to history.
There were also researchers, of course, and what's come down to is most commonly, what people remember the riders project for, in addition to the slave narratives of which there were 2300 and Zora Neale Hurston particularly worked on that project in Florida. What people most identify the Writers Project with is the American guides, what a lot of people called WPA Guides. Guidebooks to every state in the Union, plus Puerto Rico, plus Alaska, and regions all over the place, and really paying close attention, not just to the major capitals.
Although the shock of these guides is-- The project when it first started was like give these people some jobs as FDR's right-hand man said, "Writers and artists have to eat just like anybody else." The Miracle was that within a year and a half, some of these books started coming out, and they got great reviews, and they were bestsellers. People said themselves, "We got to hit on our hands."
After the state guides were in motion, somebody said, "Let's do city guides." Before they were done, there were like 1,000 books and pamphlets created by this Federal Writers' Project that we can learn so much from today, and take inspiration from for a new project.
Sarah: Right now, the bill sets aside $60 million for the New Writers Project, the Department of Labor would administer it. How would they administer it? How would the Writers Project actually work in practice?
David: Well, four different types of organizations can apply for grants. There are newsrooms, both nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms, mostly smaller ones. Libraries, both public and nonprofit. Newspaper guild, of course, would be a logical grantee, and universities or other organizations that gather and curate educational and cultural material. All of them would apply to the Labor Department, and intern, writers, and editors, and photographers would work for them to create this second legacy.
Sarah: You wrote in your article that 85 years ago FDR saved American writers, do you have an idea of how many jobs this new version would create?
David: Well, at its peak, the original created 6,600. This one calls initially for between 900 and 1,000, but there is an option to renew after the first year. Of course, the hope is that in addition to chronicling the pandemic, there's so much that's happened in the last 85 years since the first round of Federal Writers' Project guides. There's so many other stories to tell.
Sarah: There are very few bipartisan issues these days. What would your pitch to Republicans be for this program?
David: This is a deeply patriotic project. This is a conservative project because the idea is to conserve the memories of what we've gone through both this year and ever since the 1930s and create a lasting bequest to the future. I think of this as a shamelessly patriotic initiative and I plan to send links that anyone can find at the Rowan University Library website to every last Federal Writers' Project guide, to every representative, every senator, so that they can see for themselves just what nonpartisan valentines to America in all its complexity, the good and the bad. The originals were and the new 21st-century Writers Project as the sainted Congressman Lieu is calling it can be for today and anybody who wants to read them from now until doomsday.
Sarah: David Kipen is a lecturer in writing at UCLA and former Literature Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. David, thank you so much for joining us.
David: It was my pleasure, Sarah. Thanks for calling.
Sarah: All right, folks, it has been a pleasure being with you all week. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have. You can follow me @GonzalezSarahA, or you can listen to me at my day job at Planet Money. We're an economics podcast, we tell stories about money and the economy. You can check us out wherever you get your podcasts and on your favorite public radio stations as well.
Quick shout out to the team here at The Takeaway, they're the best. Our line producer is Jackie Martin. Our producer crew is Ethan Oberman, José Olivares, Meg Dalton, Patricia Yacob, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Vince Fairchild is our board operator and broadcast engineer. Jay Cowit is our director and editor, and Polly Irungu is our digital editor. David Gebel is our executive assistant, and Lee Hill is our executive producer. Thanks so much for listening. I'm Sarah Gonzalez, in for Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway.
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