Janesville: The Promise of America

Janesville, Wisconsin was well known throughout the upper midwest as a blue collar town that manufactured automobiles since early in the 20th century. It’s known for other things since the Janesville GM Assembly Plant closed down in December 2008, taking 1,200 United Auto Worker jobs with it.

"But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America,” then Senator Barack Obama said in town on February, 2008, nine months before he was to be elected president and 10 months before the plant closed. 

The irony of those words were lost on no one. 

Amy Goldstein, a reporter with the Washington Post, spent years reporting on the impacts of the plant closure, which became her well regarded book, Janesville: An American Story

I grew up between Janesville and Madison, the state’s capital and home to the large and well regarded University of Wisconsin. Living so close, I know very little about Janesville. Searching for entertainment when we were younger, I doubt we’d even considered going out to Janesville above doing something in Madison.  

I moved out of the state many years ago, so you could also say I don’t know much about Wisconsin — especially in the way the people and politics have changed since the Great Recession. 

But I found enough truth in Goldstein’s book because it was obvious she dug deep into the community and tried to tell the story through its people. She didn’t want to write a political polemic, she told a group at the Janesville Library, but she wanted to show people what it feels like when you lose a job. Or, when many people lose jobs around you. 

In that, she was very successful. 

Here’s a few things I learned from the book:  

  • Janesville started building autos in 1923 — and the city had seen hard times before. People didn’t think the 2008 shutdown would become permanent.  This was partly because GM kept the plant in limbo instead of formally closing it by putting it in standby status. (One other plant came off of standby status for a short time.) This forced at least some people to believe that maybe the jobs would come back and perhaps made the psychological situation even worse.

  • Not just people working at GM lost their jobs. The factories of the Assembly Plant’s suppliers’ lost their core business and laid many others off. In a survey the author completed with researchers five years after the plant closed, some 35 percent of respondents said that someone in their house had lost a job. 

  • Job training laid off workers is much more difficult than it sounds. The trainees first must be motivated and then prepared academically to go to school, which is sometimes the biggest problem. Jobs also need to be available for the students in their new fields. If not, cynicism or anxiety creeps in and students can drop out without completing their programs, which could make them very vulnerable: no degree to earn higher wages, but still owing student loans.

  • Goldstein found more than a few people who went back to school after the plant closed  were not doing as well as those who didn’t go back to school. That’s not to say everyone who went back to school was doing worse off. Yet it happens. 

  • Regardless of what work former plant workers found, nearly no one made the same amount of wages as they did when at GM. 

  • One reason Janesville’s economy became so impacted after GM left was that many people elected to stay in town rather than picking up and searching for work elsewhere, like Texas or Arizona. This is in line with a general trend that fewer people move regions for work as opposed to the larger immigrations during the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Yet, more than a few Janesville GM employees became “gypsies” and took jobs at GM plants in Fort Wayne Indiana or Kansas City or Arlington, Texas. Sometimes they would leave their families in Janesville while working these jobs.   

  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan grew up in Janesville and will represent the district until his retirement in January 2019. The story partly mirrors his ascent in the House. As the company decided to close the plant, Ryan was a rising star in the Republican party and had spent a bit of time keeping up with GM leadership. The GM closure greatly affected Ryan personally and politically, and he later argued that cities like Janesville afflicted by the great recession should not count on government to lift them up. Rather, they should count on the resources marshaled by the community, which could be better directed with less structural and financial overhead.

  • The social workers and those running the food pantries or job training sites in the book argued that the cuts in state and federal aid that corresponded with politicians adopting Ryan’s thinking meant fewer funds for charities, forcing them to only help a minority of those in need. 

  • Children were greatly impacted by the Assembly Plant’s closure, especially older teens who bore some psychological and economic responsibility as their parents struggled slipping out of the middle class. Some children became homeless as parents left Janesville searching for work but did not have the funds to take their older children with them.