A simultaneously enlightening and disturbing look at working-class lives in America’s heartland.



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.

Pub Date: April 18, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-0223-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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