Janesville : An American Story / Amy Goldstein

Janesville is a medium sized city located in southern Wisconsin.  Throughout the Twentieth Century, it prospered because of two major employers, the Parker Pen Company and General Motors.  In its heyday, GM’s auto plant there employed over 4,000 people.  These were well paying union jobs that ensured a solid middle class existence for most employees.  Thanks to this strong economic base, many believed that the city would continue to prosper for generations to come.  This was proved wrong when, at the start of the Great Recession in 2008, both industries closed their doors there, and soaring unemployment knocked many people from their middle class perch into needing government assistance to ward off hunger and homelessness.  In a year’s time, the world was turned upside down in Janesville.

In this exposé of the events that followed in Janesville, Amy Goldstein focuses on a select number of families, showing the devastation that occurred on a personal level as the city grappled with how to respond to the double whammy of two major employers leaving town at the same time that the economy tanked universally during the Great Recession.  Portraying both sides of the political divide, she chronicles a city’s attempt to rebrand itself in a world where the loss of high paid jobs were replaced by employment that came nowhere close to providing the wages that most were making before.

Goldstein shows that, despite the best intentions of active citizens in rebuilding their devastated city, what they were able to provide fell far short of replacing the jobs lost.  Even when funds were provided for reeducation of those left unemployed, many were still not able to make the transition to jobs better suited to today’s new economy.

Following the arc of citizens in Janesville affected by the Great Recession through 2013, Goldstein paints a picture of why it was so difficult for these families to find firm footing despite the subsequent rebound of the stock market.  Despite the efforts of a determined city intent on rebuilding its former middle class existence, there was no way to cushion such a devastating blow.  It is a story that is, in part, a harbinger of Trump’s election in 2016.

Janesville is not a tale that highlights a community’s failure.  Rather, it sympathetically details a city’s determination to overcome the label of just another casualty in today’s economic environment.  Even if not totally succeeding in the quest, Goldstein provides a picture of a Midwestern community’s refusal to become just another Rust Belt city.  While the book does not provide a clear pathway to Janesville’s recovery, it portrays a city intent on survival.  The lessons learned in this community will be valuable to cities across the country as they wrestle to find ways to recreate an economy that provides hope to working class citizens when lost union jobs are unlikely to return.

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