Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

Janesville: An American Story

“Moving and magnificently well-researched...Janesville joins a growing family of books about the evisceration of the working class in the United States. What sets it apart is the sophistication of its storytelling and analysis.” —The New York TimesA Washington Post reporter’s intimate account of the fallout from the closing of a General Motors’ assembly plant in Janesville...

Title:Janesville: An American Story
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:1501102230
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:368 pages

Janesville: An American Story Reviews

  • Alexander
    May 29, 2017

    Janesville: An American Story reminds me of George Packer’s book, The Unwinding, about the Great Recession. Both books describe the economic, social, physical and psychic cost of broken dreams and diminished expectations. Both display enormous empathy for their subjects yet unflinchingly chronicle their missteps. In that sense, Janesville is also like Evicted, another book about Wisconsin that acknowledges personal responsibility while never letting the reader forget the limited options availabl

    Janesville: An American Story reminds me of George Packer’s book, The Unwinding, about the Great Recession. Both books describe the economic, social, physical and psychic cost of broken dreams and diminished expectations. Both display enormous empathy for their subjects yet unflinchingly chronicle their missteps. In that sense, Janesville is also like Evicted, another book about Wisconsin that acknowledges personal responsibility while never letting the reader forget the limited options available to many Americans because society has collectively decided to invest its resources and construct its institutions to favor the successful. Evicted’s argument is far more structural, but similarities abound - including elegant writing that draws you into the lives of families in each book. Alongside The Politics of Resentment, we now have a trilogy of provocative books that give voice to the toll on ordinary Wisconsinites and our civil society from the modern world we have created.

    The takeaway from Janesville is that desperation fuels unrealistic hopes that the things we do to mitigate economic pain will actually cure that pain. What does that mean? Most of the families in Janesville are admirably determined - working hard, changing careers, making sacrifices - to recover from the closure of the GM plant. But optimism, faith, sacrifice, and hard work is never enough. Civic boosterism brings jobs but only a few at enormous cost to social services and schools. Volunteers - almost always, notably, teachers or UAW members - work hard to raise less money to help more people. Communal pride is evicerated by political turmoil. Job retraining rarely results in a new job, and never in a better one. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, it turns out, isn’t easy when one’s boots are bolted to the ground. Times change, and many of the central figures in Janesville adapt to the post-industrial world, but not as they hoped and at a steep price.

    You don’t need to be from Wisconsin to appreciate this book. There are Janesvilles across America. But if you are from Wisconsin, it’s especially worth reading about the resilience of the people who live here despite the terrible hand they’ve been dealt.

  • Jen Naughton
    Feb 28, 2017

    Amy Goldstein is a Washington Press reporter, and this reads like an extremely long personal interest piece. It follows a handful of Janesville residents from roughly 2007-2016 at a time when many of them felt as if their world was crashing down around them. Cities like Janesville all across America were once middle-class meccas. Places while although they were rural allowed hard working people to achieve the American dream with just a high school diploma. Most couples working at the GM plant co

    Amy Goldstein is a Washington Press reporter, and this reads like an extremely long personal interest piece. It follows a handful of Janesville residents from roughly 2007-2016 at a time when many of them felt as if their world was crashing down around them. Cities like Janesville all across America were once middle-class meccas. Places while although they were rural allowed hard working people to achieve the American dream with just a high school diploma. Most couples working at the GM plant could easily afford a mortgage, cars, camper or boat and probably a Harley in the garage. They could take a vacation each year. Basically the American Dream. They had the union at their back, and the town itself was like most small towns in that your neighbors would help you if you needed it.

    When the GM factory shut down that all changed. Not overnight. Slowly like going down a terribly long slide that doesn't seem to end. Most people thought the plant would eventually get re-tooled for another kind of vehicle. And so, the reality of their actual situation unfolded slowly over a decade.

    One note from me: I'm not a Trump supporter. What I did take from this book is that many people who voted for him probably didn't like him much either. What Trump did do is show up and promise the manufacturing jobs that they desperately want. Desperate times call for desperate measures. People in Janesville and other decimated manufacturing cities around the US do not want a handout. They are ready and willing to work, many went back to school to train for new careers that as it turned out also aren't hiring. They need health care and other basics that should be a given in America.

    I don't know what the solution is at this point, but this story is heartbreaking, and it's happening here today in America.

  • Michael Gizzi
    May 03, 2017

    Last week I learned about a new book by Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein called Janesville: An American Story, an ethnographic story of the fallout of the closing of what had been the longest operating GM plant in the nation, Janesville, Wisconsin. The Janesville plant closed in December 2008. Janesville is also the home of House Speaker Paul Ryan. The closing of the plant resulted in not only the loss of thousands of good paying GM jobs, but impacted numerous other businesses that suppl

    Last week I learned about a new book by Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein called Janesville: An American Story, an ethnographic story of the fallout of the closing of what had been the longest operating GM plant in the nation, Janesville, Wisconsin. The Janesville plant closed in December 2008. Janesville is also the home of House Speaker Paul Ryan. The closing of the plant resulted in not only the loss of thousands of good paying GM jobs, but impacted numerous other businesses that supplied GM. There was a chain reaction, which the city has not truly recovered from, almost a decade later. After reading a review of the book in the New York Times, I picked up a copy, and have not put it down, until finishing it this afternoon.

    Janesville tells the story of the impact of the plant closing, and the author followed the impact on the lives of several families, using ethnography from 2008 through 2013, with an update to late 2015. The book provides a real feel for the problems faced by the working class in America, and that of the working poor, the challenges of families trying to make ends meet on $10 or $12 per hour wages. It tells the story of how a community tries to grapple with huge increases in poverty, and even how local high schools organized food pantries. It uses stories of families, and individuals, and is compelling from the first page to the last. It tells the story of a family where the two teenage daughters work two jobs to try to help their family get by. It tells the story of the GM employee who transfers to a Fort Wayne, Indiana GM Plant, and commutes home every weekend, to try to maintain their standard of living. It tells the story of displaced workers who are forced into job training programs at the local technical college, often to find out that even with re-training and new career paths, their options are extremely limited.

    Janesville also features House Speaker Paul Ryan (although through the time covered in the book he was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Romney's VP candidate. It illustrates how his views contradict those of many in his home-town, but the book is not particularly political or ideological. It offers many lessons, however, and I read it with the desire to better understand the working class issues that led many places like Janesville to turn away from the Democrats in 2016 and vote for Trump. Yet, Janesville itself, and Rock County, Wisconsin, did not "go Trump" last November. Clinton won with 52% of the vote, although her margin was almost 10% less than Obama's was in 2012, which was the result of less people voting than greater turnout for Trump. Indeed, in 2012, neither the city of Janesville nor Rock County voted for Romney/Ryan, and hometown boy Ryan didn't even win in his congressional race. (He did win it in 2016).

    One of the lessons I walked away with from the book -- and I'll admit, I am still processing it -- was it did not feel like either Ryan nor Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's fiscal conservatism offered much to improve the plight of Janesvillle's economic condition, even after the recession officially ended. If anything, Walker's draconian cuts in state programs hurt far more people than it helped. BUT neither did the Obama administration or the Democrats seem to offer much either.

    There are plenty of Janesvilles across the Midwest and Northeast. Plenty of formerly thriving working class cities where people worked hard, earned solid wages, and made a life for themselves, but are now finding that the manufacturing jobs that provided a career, and a pension, are disappearing. Many of these people turned their frustrations into votes that Donald Trump was able to capitalize on -- even though it is highly unlikely that he will offer them anything to improve their lot either. Yet, it is just as unclear what the Democratic Party of 2017, the party of "Resistance" is doing to win back the working class workers of Janesville either. I'd think that every single Democrat should read this book, and think about how to learn from the experiences of the people of Janesville.

    If you are trying to make sense of the world in 2017, I'd argue that Janesville: An American Story should be required reading. It won't provide all the answers, but it will give you much to think about.

  • Rachel Blakeman
    Jun 21, 2017

    This is a solid 4-star book. It was what I was hoping "Glass House" was going to be but wasn't. Despite what my profile says, I live in Fort Wayne so I felt a geographic connection to the storyline for the GM gypsies and the descriptions about Fort Wayne although limited were accurate. Like the comment on the back cover from Robert Putnam says, this is an extension of the themes in "Hillbilly Elegy" but on a community-wide level.

    I have lived my entire life in the industrial Midwest where I have

    This is a solid 4-star book. It was what I was hoping "Glass House" was going to be but wasn't. Despite what my profile says, I live in Fort Wayne so I felt a geographic connection to the storyline for the GM gypsies and the descriptions about Fort Wayne although limited were accurate. Like the comment on the back cover from Robert Putnam says, this is an extension of the themes in "Hillbilly Elegy" but on a community-wide level.

    I have lived my entire life in the industrial Midwest where I have watched good-paying low-skill jobs dry up. This was an insight into the lives of rural, white working class folks that are facing a new and unpleasant economic reality. The characters make it read like a novel. Highly recommend for my fellow Midwesterners and people who want to understand the slow roll of decline.

  • The Pfaeffle Journal
    May 06, 2017

    This is a great book, very well done. I highly recommend it.

  • Steve Peifer
    May 19, 2017

    What happens when the largest employer in town closes down? This is an extraordinary look at the human cost involved when people lose their livelihood. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

    The author hammers on Scott Walker pretty hard, while barely noting that a pro business governor may be more likely to attract business. But this is where it gets interesting; the author understands that it is hard to attract business. It's harder than anyone thinks to retrain factory workers. More to the po

    What happens when the largest employer in town closes down? This is an extraordinary look at the human cost involved when people lose their livelihood. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

    The author hammers on Scott Walker pretty hard, while barely noting that a pro business governor may be more likely to attract business. But this is where it gets interesting; the author understands that it is hard to attract business. It's harder than anyone thinks to retrain factory workers. More to the point, the author talks about how although most people hated working at GM, they were made complacent by the high wages.

    When you haven't taken responsibility for your own growth and marketability, it's easy to float on the river while times are good. Takeaway: invest in educating yourself and don't rely on an employer for your security. Which is easier said than done.

    Some of the people in this book will stay with you for a long time. Truly worth the read.

  • Robert
    May 21, 2017

    Amy Goldstein's Janesville, An American Story reports on the anguish of modest American dreams gasping their last in the hometown of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Janesville, Wisconsin, once was a manufacturing town. Parker Pen originated there (and was shuttered there). GM built cars and SUVs there, and then as the 70s, 80s, and 90s turned into 2008, thousands of jobs disappeared when the last enormous Chevy Tahoe rolled off the assembly line and GM, forced into bankruptcy, closed its Ja

    Amy Goldstein's Janesville, An American Story reports on the anguish of modest American dreams gasping their last in the hometown of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Janesville, Wisconsin, once was a manufacturing town. Parker Pen originated there (and was shuttered there). GM built cars and SUVs there, and then as the 70s, 80s, and 90s turned into 2008, thousands of jobs disappeared when the last enormous Chevy Tahoe rolled off the assembly line and GM, forced into bankruptcy, closed its Janesville plant and sank, at the same time, the many parts suppliers that fed it.

    Goldstein's Janesville proceeds by narrating the consequences for Parker and GM "families." Real teenagers were abandoned by their parents, real moms committed suicide, real husbands had to take jobs 280 miles away (spending 2 days a week with their families back in Janesville), and real social activists--teachers, job training directors, health care volunteers--barely sustained ever-diminishing programs designed to help folks keep their houses, deal with their diabetes, and cope with mental exhaustion and illness.

    This is fact, not fiction. Red brick towns all over America have been, for decades now, deindustrialized, abandoned by large corporations, sold out by unions, and hollowed out by big box stores that decimated Main Street. We all know this, don't we? But Goldstein puts an unforgettable face on the discouraging decay, the happy-talk tough love of politicians like Paul Ryan and Governor Scott Walker, and the loss of small town soul in the hinterland.

    Janesville became a moral slum, a canyon with the majority crushed by their financial shortfalls at the bottom and the minority, the small minority, doing just fine up on the cliffs above disaster. The Chamber of Commerce crowd crowed that by 2015 Janesville was back. The retrained, underpaid exiles from manufacturing knew better, their kids knew better, their doctors and the coroner knew better.

    Goldstein traces the year-by-year efforts dozens of residents made to rebrand and renew Janesville, but in a sense, Paul Ryan's refusal to ever visit Janesville's struggling job retraining center symbolized their failure. He became Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan not by looking the facts in the face, but by deciding, correctly, that he could afford to lose the vote in his hometown and still win...small town boy faking compassion by focusing on budget cutting in Washington to give the rich a better chance to get richer.

    We go back to that sinister capitalist phrase, Schumpeter's "creative destruction, and sadly are able to see only destruction, nothing creative. We hear Trump's harrumphing about bringing back the jobs and already can see he has no desire to really focus on that (or any idea how). And then we read page after page of this book and face the fact, again, that yes, a GM can and will fail, and no, we have no national response.

    The fundamentals of life--acutely and painfully highlighted from 2008 on and woven throughout Goldstein's text--are obvious: people need protection from rapist banks and cynical financial manipulators, children need quality education, and everyone needs access to affordable healthcare. Obama did his best; he even bailed out GM; but we have succumbed to multigenerational greed and mismanagement, and it's going to take multigenerational effort to put things right...if we ever do.

    The Janesville Goldstein presents is unrecognizable to its residents. They cannot imagine a Labor Day parade float featuring homeless teenagers. They cannot believe the food bank shuts its doors after forty families are provisioned when the need runs into the hundreds. Well-intentioned and even ambitious civic efforts are made to reverse the town's plummeting fortunes, but tragically, the local billionaire contributes more to the Republican budget cutters than she does to her own local initiatives.

    We have known this was coming. Goldstein is not the first journalist to give us the news. Edmund Wilson described our Depresson-era misery in the 1930s. Michael Harrington wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States in 1962. And of course LBJ and RFK made a stab at advancing a War on Poverty later in the 1960s. But we are not, we keep telling ourselves, a poor country, we are a rich country. But that's only true in terms of dollars and defense budgets, not in terms of common sense or morality.

  • Chris Jaffe
    Jun 03, 2017

    This is a really good look at life in a small industrial town that has lost its industry. Janesville was home to the longest continuously used GM plant - until that plant closed down in 2008. Goldstein notes that we often put an industrial town in the news when its main factory closes down - but what happens next? Goldstein made contacts with people in various walks of life in Janesville - laid off factory workers and their families, a bank president, community leaders, teachers, local politicia

    This is a really good look at life in a small industrial town that has lost its industry. Janesville was home to the longest continuously used GM plant - until that plant closed down in 2008. Goldstein notes that we often put an industrial town in the news when its main factory closes down - but what happens next? Goldstein made contacts with people in various walks of life in Janesville - laid off factory workers and their families, a bank president, community leaders, teachers, local politicians (while Janesville is primarily an industrial union town, it is also the home town of GOP leader Paul Ryan, other industrial workers - to see how the course of their lives and the town as a whole went in the aftermath of the closing. She focuses on the town from 2008 (when the plant closed) until 2012 - with a brief epilogue looking at the town in 2016.

    You get a sense of a town that is still trying to get better, but has never fully recovered. Many GM workers were given jobs in other towns, becoming gypsies. (They still live in Janesville because that's where their families and roots are, but they'll work in Indiana or Michigan or KC and migrate back every weekend or maybe once a month). Some people end up in decent jobs and recover, but many are still trying to get back.

    In many ways, the nature of Janesville's civil society has ruptured. The town's reputation for being a congenial, giving place isn't what it used to be. The hard times frayed some nerves, especially as a recovery wasn't forthcoming. Gov. Scott Walker's take-no-prisoners polarizing style has left a strong impression on the town as well. The place still leans Democrat, but not as much as it once did. (It voted 60% for Obama in 2012, but 52% for HRC in '16). There is a new problem of homeless teens. Local organizations and teachers try to help out, but there is less funds available for it. The YMCA was heavily involved in a program to help homeless teens, but had to pull out due to funding.

    Goldstein notes that two Jansvilles have emerged. On one end, the upper crust talk about how the town has survived the storm and is doing fine now. They laud recent investments in the town by industry and that the town by 2016 has its lowest unemployment rate of the century. The other Janesville consists of people hit hard by the plant closing. Most of the town believes that Janesville has never fully recovered - and likely never well. The old sense of job security is gone, and the jobs that have come don't pay as well as those that left. (At one point in the book, Goldstein notes that the bank president is trying to promote Janesville by asking people to be more optimistic. But that led to a backlash as some just got angry by any happy talk).

    There are a lot of books like this nowadays. I recently read Glass House, about a similar town - the conservative industrial town of Lancaster, Ohio that still has its main industry, but the both it and the town have seen better days. Comparing the two, Glass House is more ambitious - it tries to describe the town's full history, it's ups-and-down, and why the town isn't what it once was. Goldstein mostly just talks about the experience of the town in the aftermath of the plant closing. While Goldstein isn't as ambitious, this book is a lot more readable. Glass House suffered from getting too bogged down in the financial back-and-forth of the industry, and that could get wearying. (Mind you, it's fairly obvious which way Goldstein leans - she is more supporting of the laid off side of Janesville rather than the well-off side). Both books are great. Glass House has bigger positives but also wasn't as readable.

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