What happens when the majority of the jobs in your community are provided by or based around one company…and that company pulls out? This is the question Amy Goldstein answers in Janesville: An American Story, my pick for Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge: a business book. The answers aren’t pretty.
During the Great Recession, the worst of the worst came to Janesville, Wisconsin: the General Motors plant, around which the majority of the town’s economy had long been based, announced it was shutting down. The job losses began immediately and continued until the building was entirely empty, and, like a terrible line of dominoes, other companies in the area that worked alongside or supplied General Motors closed their doors as well. Thousands of people, many whom had never worked for another company, were suddenly left without an income.
Janesville is the story of the city and county’s struggle to rebuild after their community is economically devastated. This isn’t a happy, optimistic, everyone-bands-together-and-sings-happy-songs kind of story (although there are those in the book who would have you think that). This is a book about choosing the least terrible option out of solely terrible options; of teenagers working three jobs while still attending high school; of people going without medical care for pneumonia because there’s literally no other choice; of families being turned away from the food pantry because the pantry can’t keep up with the community’s need. There’s a trigger warning for suicide in this book; there are no graphic details, but one of the people profiled by Ms. Goldstein, one who had what seemed like a fairly promising future after losing her job, ends her own life, so keep that in mind if that’s not a subject you’re comfortable reading about.
I’m going to get a little real here. A lot of this book made me angry, for many different reasons, and when the book opened with a profile of former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, I nearly put it down right then, because I don’t have much good to say about him (Janesville is his hometown, so it’s right that his reaction to this crisis is covered in this book, but he still turns my stomach). When industry shut down in Janesville, the town split into two factions, those who lost their jobs and the wealthier people who still had jobs and had little contact with those who didn’t. The wealthier people (including Paul Ryan) did a fantastic job of burying their heads in the sand and making up their own version of Janesville’s current reality, constantly talking about how all everyone needed was to be optimistic, that Janesville was recovering nicely and was a fantastic place to live. They completely ignored the suffering of families going hungry because the food pantry could only serve the first forty people there (and only if they hadn’t been there in a month), of the growing population of homeless children (some accompanied by parents, some not. Adult shelters wouldn’t accept unaccompanied teenagers; the county’s foster care system wouldn’t accept a child over 15), of the free medical clinic’s budget being cut and being able to see fewer and fewer people when the need was only increasing. Paul Ryan, at one point, waxes poetic about how Janesville doesn’t need to rely on outside sources for help, they take care of their own, and it’s unclear whether he’s willfully ignorant or entirely unaware and robustly tone deaf in regards the families who are suffering in silence because there’s no help available for them.
After the massive job losses began causing so much pain, hatred toward teachers (who, incidentally, were on the front line dealing with hungry, homeless students and struggling to find resources to help them) began to grow, to the point where some educators began avoiding public places like grocery stores until late at night, because they were being confronted by angry people accusing them of leeching off the system. Their main crime was having a steady job (and not an easy one at that), but in marched Scott Walker as Wisconsin governor, slashing the education budget, and Janesville experienced their first teacher layoff. Nothing says “We value education and are looking forward to having an educated population to care for us when we’re older!” like cutting AP classes and increasing class sizes, amirite? (And speaking of education, the people who went back to school and retrained in a different field actually ended up worse off than the people who didn’t, so scratch that myth off the list.)
I knew some of what Wisconsin went through under Scott Walker, but I wasn’t aware of all that Janesville had suffered (and is still suffering), despite it being only a short drive away for me (although I wasn’t in the area when all this was happening; the recession affected us as well and we spent five years living and working out of state, away from family). This is a frustrating, tragic story to read, but it shines a lot of light on the America of the past ten years, including the dwindling wages (a large amount of jobs that came back to Janesville only paid $15/16 per hour, and we wonder why so many Americans can’t afford a home…), the economy that still continues to struggle, and the stark divide between the haves and the trying-desperately-to-have-anything.
This probably isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own, but I’m glad I did, despite the frustration I felt in reading it. If it’s that frustrating for me to just read about, the stress of being a teenager and working three jobs to help support your family and still attending high school, or working a four-hour drive away from home and only seeing your children on weekends because that’s the only job you can get (and your family is still struggling financially) is beyond measure, and their stories deserve to be heard. The struggling families of Janesville and all around the country (and world!) deserve far better than we’ve given them. We’re all in this together, but we’ve failed these people who are struggling through no fault of their own.
I dislike saying that a work of nonfiction reads like a novel, because I think that often discounts the ability of nonfiction to be engaging in its own right, but so much of this book is as gripping as any fictional story. Unfortunately, every last word of it is painfully true. Janesville will forever change how I think and feel when I hear of major corporations closing their doors, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to listen to such a story on the news without reflecting on the hardship it will cause the families and communities affected.