The Great Recession ultimately left millions of Americans without jobs and devastated entire communities. The bruises have lingered, perhaps nowhere more so than in the industrial communities of our nation’s heartland, places like Janesville, Wis.
Janesville was home to the oldest operating General Motors plant until it shut down in the midst of the Great Recession, two days before Christmas in 2008. It was a devastating blow. Not only did generations of Janesville families work at the plant but, as author Amy Goldstein tells us, for years the factory had “ordered the city’s rhythms.”
Goldstein chronicles the challenges the town and its citizens faced after the last Chevrolet Tahoe rolled off the assembly line in “Janesville: An American Story.” The book won the 2017 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year award and comes out in paperback on Feb 8.
GM started manufacturing cars in Janesville on Valentine’s Day 1923. For more than eight decades, the factory offered good paychecks to fund middle-class lifestyles, plus the promise of a comfortable retirement. The Janesville residents who weren’t autoworkers still depended on GM. They worked in freight yards unloading the parts that rolled into town, ran Janesville’s little shops, taught in its schools and built its houses. The plant was such a part of daily life that, Goldstein notes, even the local radio station synchronized its news broadcasts to shift changes.
GM had been struggling before the recession and everyone in Janesville knew it. But it had a knack for recovering. But the town was unprepared for the Great Recession’s near-record gas prices that proved a fatal blow for the Janesville Assembly Plant and its full-size SUVs. As many as 9,000 of Janesville’s 63,000 residents lost their jobs in 2008-2009 — they were among 8.8 million jobs lost around the country during the recession — and the unraveling of Janesville continued for years.
Suddenly there was great competition for all jobs, any job. Families were torn apart as unemployed autoworkers sought work out of town. Children began worrying about their parents and about college no longer being attainable. Many young people even found themselves homeless. When it was needed the most, charitable giving dropped off, as did civility among friends and neighbors. Congressman Paul Ryan, a fifth generation Janesville resident, knew well how important the GM plant was to his hometown, but he, too, was powerless to prevent the closure or the aftermath.
Goldstein has been a staff writer at The Washington Post for 30 years, where she has written widely about social policy issues and shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. She returned to Cambridge, Mass., as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to work on this book about Janesville.
Goldstein’s expert handling of the many facets of the Janesville story exposes some weaknesses in our collective thinking when it comes to the effectiveness of job retraining programs. While retraining works in theory, in practice there are many challenges to overcome when workers suddenly lose what they assumed would be lifelong jobs. Goldstein’s moving and thought-provoking book brings these and other challenges into sharp focus.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Goldstein airs in March. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.
“Janesville: An American Story”
by Amy Goldstein;
Simon and Schuster ($27)