A Midwestern town struggles to survive in the aftermath of an economic disaster.
Based on three years of probing interviews, Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post journalist Goldstein makes her literary debut with an engrossing investigation of Janesville, Wisconsin, where General Motors, the town’s major employer, closed its plant in 2008. Like Barbara Ehrenreich and George Packer, Goldstein reveals the shattering consequences of the plant’s closing through an evenhanded portrayal of workers, educators, business and community leaders, and politicians—notably, Paul Ryan, a Janesville native who swept into town periodically. Like other politicians, Ryan made promises that proved empty. In 2012, Janesville voters chose Barack Obama over their native son. In 2016, when Wisconsin broke with its Democratic tradition and voted Republican, 52 percent of voters in Janesville’s county supported Hillary Clinton. Janesville exemplifies the plight of many cities after sustaining industry leaves. Unemployment rose to 13 percent, and many former GM workers opted for federally subsidized job training. Yet such training, Goldstein discovered, rarely leads to solid employment. The head of the local community college, deluged with new students, found them shockingly deficient in skills: she designed a “boot camp” for students who did not know how to turn on a computer and a student success course for those with poor study skills. Many dropped out in frustration; some opted for any part-time work they could find; and the few who persisted often faced lack of job opportunities. Families struggled to pay mortgages for houses quickly becoming devalued, and they faced daunting medical costs without health coverage. Business leaders stepped in with optimistic reform measures, but their self-congratulatory work had little effect. Those in social services, repeatedly disappointed and disillusioned by lack of government interest, did manage to devise effective support strategies. The author saw the growing divide of two Janesvilles whose views were evident in the election, recall, and triumph of the anti-union governor, Scott Walker. Although by 2013, the town had recovered to some extent, most workers earned far below their former wages.
A simultaneously enlightening and disturbing look at working-class lives in America’s heartland.