Amy Goldstein, author of Janesville: An American Story, says her goal in writing the book was not to offer policy prescriptions, but “to get people to think” about what changes in the American economy have meant to everyday people and communities.
The book is, indeed, thought-provoking, not to mention highly readable and important. In an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Wednesday, Goldstein, talked about the context and content of the book.
In what she refers to as her day job, she has been a Washington Post reporter for nearly three decades, currently covering health policy issues. She told Gousha that in the late 2000s, she felt that the story of what was happening at the ground level of changes in the American economy hadn’t been given enough attention. That led her to decide to write a book about a community that had been changed by the changes, and to choose Janesville, where the General Motors plant that was the dominant economic presence in town had closed in 2008.
Goldstein had never been in Janesville before her first visit for the book in 2011. But she spent extensive time there and gathered intimate and compelling stories about many of the GM workers, their families, and others who had their lives changed by the plant closing. In the book – and, in much smaller part, in the program with Gousha – Goldstein recounted some of those stories.
Janesville, a city of about 64,000 in south-central Wisconsin, was a place where people got along and generally led comfortable lives, thanks in large part to the GM jobs, which paid well and offered generous fringe benefits. Janesville, as a whole, had a can-do attitude, Goldstein said.
It still does that attitude in many ways, she said. Much of the community got behind efforts to attract new employers after the plant closing and many of the workers who lost their jobs, not only at the plant but at the web of supplier businesses attached to it, positively pursued routes to what they hoped would be new jobs. That worked out for some, and not for others.
Overall, Goldstein said, unemployment in Janesville was around 13 percent in 2009 and is now around 4 percent. But large numbers of people have jobs that pay substantially less, with lesser benefits and security, than they had at the plant. Many have lost aspects of the middle class life they led in the past, Goldstein said people clamor for jobs that pay $13 or $14 an hour. Jobs at the plant paid well over $20 an hour.
Goldstein described one worker who took a job at a GM plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., after he couldn’t get a decent and stable job in Janesville. He and several others drove about 300 miles early each Monday to Fort Wayne and drove home late on Friday nights. Goldstein ended the program reading a short passage from the book describing one of those Friday night commutes.
It was the worker’s third anniversary of making the Fort Wayne trips, years that had been hard on him and his family. As he and a couple other “Janesville gypsies” headed out from the Indiana plant, he texted his wife, “Happy anniversary to me. Three years.” She responded, “Has it been three years? It seems a lot longer.” She ended with a sad-faced emoticon.
To view the program, click here. Or this is one time when it seems in-bounds to say that if you want the full, thought-provoking look at what changes in the economy have meant not only to Janesville, but the nation, read the book.