Located in southern Wisconsin, on the edge of the Rust Belt, Janesville is home to just under 65,000 people – including Speaker Paul Ryan and, once, a General Motors (GM) car manufacturing plant.
Since 1923, Janesville had been churning out Chevrolets and was, at one point, GM’s oldest continuously operating plant in America. It had survived the rapid de-industrialisation which occurred in neighbouring cities and states from as early as the 1970’s – turning the former industrial heartland of American into today’s Rust Belt. It survived the Great Depression, but it would be rising fuel prices, changing customer preferences and the Global Financial Crisis which brought it down. In June 2008, GM announced that the plant would close by 2010.
It didn’t last that long. Six months later, the last Chevrolet Tahoe rolled off the assembly line – just two days before Christmas. By April, the plant would shut its doors. 1,200 people lost their jobs.
The flow on effect was also swift and, like dominoes, companies began cutting back or shutting their doors. Lear, which supplied car seats and interiors to GM, soon shut their Janesville plant. Allied Automotive Group, which brought the cars to market, also followed soon after. That’s not discounting the small businesses and shops on Main Street suffering from lower demand, or charities that experienced fewer donations. A study from the University of Wisconsin in 2007 suggested that there were as many as 7,000 workers who indirectly supported the GM plant while official figures from Rock County – where Janesville is located – suggested that 9,000 people lost their jobs in 2008 and 2009.
“Janesville: An American Story” is a microcosm of the emotional anguish and pain that so many people suffered, and are suffering still, as a result of not just the recession but the de-industralisation that has impacted rural communities across America.
This isn’t easy reading – and perhaps it isn’t meant to be. Amy Goldstein, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, offers a heavy and confronting book as it is beautifully and sophisticatedly written. There’s nothing special about most of the people Goldstein follows and chronicles across a five-year period. Most are ordinary people and they truly represent the best that is in America. I think of the Whiteaker family who were denied a “Bag of Hope” at Christmas – groceries which would see them through a particularly though period – and yet volunteered their time to pack and distribute the bags to other families doing it tough, much like their own.
But “Janesville” is more than just stories strung together. It’s a narrative about survival – as an individual, as a family and as a community. One woman committed suicide; others would see their mental health erode as they forced themselves to work jobs they hated just to ensure a steady income. Matt Wopat would commute four and a half hours each way, every weekend, between Janesville and Fort Wayne, Indiana, so that he could continue to make the GM wage of 28 dollars per hour to support his family – a wage few who remained in Janesville would ever earn again. Mike Vaughn, a former union leader from a union family, would have to start again in an entry-level human resources role – but is now in management.
The determined spirit of Wopat and Vaughn, and the efforts of a local billionaire and bank manager to drive investment in the region by forming Rock County 5.0, have helped make Rock County an American success story at a time when many said Janesville would soon join the Rust Belt with depleted population growth and crippling infrastructure. The most recent unemployment rate from December 2017, not seasonally adjusted, is 2.7% as new, smaller high-tech companies move in.
Yet, these are just numbers on a page. 14.7% of people in Janesville still live in poverty while wage growth has stagnated. It doesn’t account for the emotional and mental tool on families like the Wopats, or those who are trapped in under-employment, working in low-pay, low-hours, low-skilled work. A 2017 survey, which was conducted by the University of Wisconsin and released in an appendix in the book, highlighted the pessimistic outlook that the 1,000 residents polled felt about the state of the economy, the prices of their homes and the general outlook of the economy.
The book touches on political themes – after all, this frustration felt by rural communities was what spurred many to support Donald Trump in the last election. Yet Goldstein doesn’t espouse any particular viewpoint; both Republicans and Democrats are criticised in the book. It’s just a raw and honest account of the heartbeat of a local community dealt a tough hand and families fighting to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
“Janesville” is a story of survival, but as Goldstein wrote about Barb, a former employee at Lear, “Its closing taught her that she is a survivor. It taught her that work exists that is worth doing, not for the wages, but because you feel good doing it.”
Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein. 351 pages. Published by Simon & Schuster. Available from all leading bookstores.
Ian Tan is the President of the UWA Politics Club, currently in his third year majoring in Political Science & International Relations and History.