I don’t remember when I learned about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman (Random House, 2021), but I do know it appealed to me right away. A few years ago, I read Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein and really enjoyed it, and that was the book that really opened up my eyes to what the economic landscape of so much of America looks like. I read it as part of a reading challenge; it’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but I’m eternally grateful that I did, and my picking up American Made stems directly from my having read hat book.
So much of the image America has of itself involves people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, getting a job that allows them to work with their hands and earn enough money to live a good life, and to feel pride in what they do. And a large part of this story involves jobs in factories, jobs that you can learn from the ground up and walk into straight from high school, then not leave until you retire at 65. But the landscape has changed. NAFTA opened up the world to trade with Mexico and China, and one by one, these factories picked up and moved overseas. They could pay their employees far less there; operating costs would be less; safety measures wouldn’t be as stringent (thus, upping production); the company wouldn’t have to deal with stupid unions and expensive health insurance. Win-win, right?
Not for the American people who were losing their jobs. The exodus of these manufacturing centers leave the towns they’re located in economically depressed; the former employees are left scrambling to survive. Often, their skills aren’t transferrable, and the only other options for employment leave their pocketbooks nearly empty long before the end of the month. Those jobs most presidents brag about creating don’t often pay a living wage.
Journalist Farah Stockman follows three people who flounder in the wake of the closing of the Rexnord manufacturing plant in Indianapolis: John, a white union head; Wally, a Black man who dreams of opening a barbecue joint; and Shannon, a white woman caring for her disabled granddaughter and schizophrenic son. The moving of the plant to Mexico disrupts their lives in every way imaginable, and the consequences stretch far and wide.
Farah Stockman covers their stories with sympathy and understanding. There are times when the people she follows aren’t entirely sympathetic, but Ms. Stockman never wavers in her work to understand what they’re thinking and feeling, and why they’re reacting and making the decisions they do. Her exploration of the reasons behind Rexnord’s move to Mexico opened my eyes to the long-term consequences of NAFTA, something I hadn’t been fully cognizant of before, and I so appreciate that new understanding. I’ll definitely be reading these stories of plant closings around the US with new eyes from now on.
American Made is an incredible look at the devastation wrought by a more expanded world trade. There are human consequences to what we think of as progress, and it’s so important to understand the whole story. What a great book.