Janesville blues


Will Mapplebeck is engrossed by a cautionary American tale.IMG-20190304-WA0001

Amy Goldstein’s moving and compelling Janesville is about a small Wisconsin city whose main employer – a General Motors car plant – shuts down in the wake of the global recession.

Unlike many reporters, Goldstein doesn’t just show up for the closure announcement, do a few Main Street vox pops and then leave. She stays in touch with people over the next few years, chronicling their successes and set-backs as they start new lives.

Janesville is about a lot of things: The end of the American middle class dream, the limits of politics and politicians and how people cope when their lives are changed by forces beyond their control.

But primarily it is a story about how people cope, and also fail to cope, with change. How families manage when their incomes halve almost overnight, how politicians promise much but deliver little apart from rhetoric and how urban policy dreamed up in universities or think tanks often doesn’t work on the ground.

For example, Janesville benefits from immediate government funding once the closure is announced, much of which pays for college courses so autoworkers can retrain. But most ex-car plant workers don’t even complete the courses because they are sucked back into the labour market, for wages well below what they earned at General Motors.

Those who don’t get diplomas actually do better than those that do complete college, who find their new white collar roles can pay less than half what they used to earn at the auto plant.

And while some families struggle, others manage okay or even do well. Some people amaze with their resilience while others crumble. Some people don’t miss the back-breaking drudgery of the factory, others feel lost and without a sense of purpose.

This is a book that up-ends conventional wisdom and challenges simple explanations. Life in post-industrial Janesville (and could this be post-industrial Birmingham too?) is complex and solutions are not easy to find.

But the genius of Janesville is how it tells moving human stories. Stories that give a unique insight into how policy and politicians can fail people who are struggling to adapt to a harsh new world.