Since the success almost 20 years ago of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of trying to survive while working a series of low-wage jobs, several memoirs emphasizing poverty’s impact have landed on bestseller lists. These include, in recent years, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2017), Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (2018) and Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land (2019).
All three authors were helped early in their careers by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, founded in 2012 by Ehrenreich in Washington, D.C., to provide financial assistance to freelance and unemployed journalists, as well as expertise to help them get published in newspapers and magazines. Now the organization wants to ensure that more books by such writers pass through the publishing pipeline. Beginning in 2020, EHRP will award grants to authors in the final stages of working on forthcoming releases dealing with economic insecurity. Grants will be from $2,500 to $7,500 each.
EHRP has a $700,000 budget in 2019 and set a $935,000 budget for 2020. It generally gives writers grants ranging from $500 to support an op-ed to $10,000 for an investigative report; the average grant is $3,500. In addition, the project helps writers place pieces in publications where they will be paid. In 2019, it helped more than 70 writers, cartoonists, and photojournalists place more than 200 pieces in different publications, up from 132 in 2018 and 118 in 2017.
“There’s lots of lower-income reporters, people with MFAs, and people with book deals living in poverty, “ noted executive director Alissa Quart, author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America and five other books. While some of the writers EHRP assists teach at universities, many of them are freelance writers or journalists who were laid off as media outlets have downsized.
Quart noted that EHRP began assisting photographers and filmmakers as well as journalists after she became executive director in 2014, and she explained that EHRP wants to help authors too, because those writing about economic insecurity can exhaust their book advances covering research and reporting expenses. EHRP’s funding “will hopefully bridge people while they’re waiting for final installments of payouts from publishers,” she said. “It’ll be based on what people have accomplished, so that we can see it.”
The first such grant will be awarded to veteran photojournalist Joseph Rodriguez, author of Taxi: Journey Through My Windows, 1977–1987, which is scheduled for release by PowerHouse Books in summer 2020.
More Than Financial Assistance
In addition to money, EHRP provides access to editors at newspapers and consumer and trade and magazines who are receptive to submissions pertaining to economic hardship and social inequality. Staffers will also edit pieces, give advice, make suggestions, and serve as a sounding board. “It’s literary social work,” managing director David Wallis explained, only half joking.
EHRP does not help its grantees find literary agents or land book deals, though Quart and Wallis will help them move through the book publishing process: they edit book proposals, review contracts, and even suggest titles and subtitles for books that originated as EHRP placements. And EHRP grantees have a growing list of books that were spawned from short-form pieces that EHRP backed.
After the Guardian published an article by Russell Cobb in 2017, the University of Oklahoma Press contacted him to inquire if he would expand upon it. Cobb’s book, The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State, will be published by the press in March 2020. And Lauren Sandler’s This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home (Random House, Apr. 2020) emerged from a story published in the Guardian in 2016.
“It’s not just EHRP—it takes a whole constellation of factors to make this kind of work possible,” Sandler said, noting that getting published in the Guardian led her to apply for an NYU reporting award, which allowed her to conduct interviews at a homeless shelter. There, she met the woman who became the focus of This Is All I Got. “There was that seed that became a book,” she noted. “It was just enough to get me started. You don’t just snap your fingers and there’s a book proposal. I don’t know if this book would ever have existed if there wasn’t that spark to light the fire.”
Alison Stine, who was an editor at Rewire until she was laid off in March, relates how EHRP reached out to her after reading an essay she’d written in the Kenyon Review. EHRP supported pieces she subsequently wrote and connected her with the podcast The Moth. The Grower (Mira, Sept. 2020), Stine’s novel about a marijuana grower in Appalachia, uses reporting she undertook with the support of EHRP.
“EHRP gave me time to write, which is the best gift you can have as a writer,” Stine said, noting that Mira had contracted with her to publish The Grower before she was laid off. Mira will publish her second novel in 2021. “EHRP was out there, seeking pieces for me,” Stein added. “I could count on them for steady work.”
Stine pointed out that, living in rural Ohio, she lacks the industry contacts that living in New York City can provide creatives. “It takes a little more for some of us to get there, through no fault of our own,” she said. “We need organizations like EHRP to help.”
After reading an essay in Human Parts that freelance writer Karie Fugett wrote about her late husband’s descent into opioid addiction after losing his leg fighting in Iraq, EHRP contacted Fugett and arranged for her to write a story for the Washington Post. The experience inspired her to write her memoir; she quickly found an agent, who will be shopping around a proposal after the holidays.
PW spoke with a dozen writers about EHRP, including Lori Yearwood, who provided the most poignant testimonial about its impact. Yearwood was a Miami Herald reporter until 2007 and was homeless for two years starting in 2014. EHRP reached out to her in 2018 and her articles and essays since include a front-page story in the Washington Post and features for American Prospect, CNBC News, the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently working on a story for Slate about homelessness in Los Angeles, with EHRP underwriting expenses for her travel between there and her home in Salt Lake City.
Such affirmations have inspired Yearwood to write a memoir, whose working title is And Then I Lay Naked in the Street: How a Middle-Class Woman Endured a Catastrophic Collapse and Found Her Way Home Again. “EHRP believed in me; they gave me a chance to prove that I could do this,” Yearwood said. “David Wallis told me I could become a journalist again when I was working at Whole Foods for $11 an hour.”
For his part, Wallis expressed hope that at some point there won’t be the need for a safety net like the one EHRP provides. “If we can get writers into being independent and not needing our services, that’s magic,” he said.
This story has been updated to correct an editing error.