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'Janesville' Looks At A Factory Town After The Factory Shuts Down


All eyes turn to the Rust Belt where three states that voted for Democratic candidates since the 1980s helped Donald Trump win the election. Wisconsin hadn't given its electoral votes to a Republican since 1984. It was key to Trump's surprising win. Republicans said Trump's promises to bring back manufacturing jobs won over working-class voters.

That's not exactly what Amy Goldstein saw. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, and she's been visiting one factory town in Wisconsin for the past six years. Her new book "Janesville: An American Story" is about what she found. Welcome to the program.

AMY GOLDSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

SUAREZ: A lot of a reporter's life is really more like parachuting into people's lives, getting what you need and then leaving. You decided to do something more like embedding. What drew you in?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I began thinking as the Great Recession was ending - 2009, a little bit after that in 2010 - that there was a lot of writing going on about whether the country's economic policies were working. And there was a lot of writing about voter anger, voter anxiety, and I realized that there wasn't a lot of writing that was putting the two together.

So I had this idea of taking a real close-up look at what was going on in one community that had lost a slew of jobs to try to find out what losing work really meant to people and to a community.

SUAREZ: You know, at first blush that sounds like an old story - a town where one big employer really dominates the town economically. Help us understand how important the General Motors factory was to Janesville.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, this General Motors assembly plant when it closed at the end of 2008 had been the oldest operating General Motors plant in the country. It had begun turning out tractors in 1919 and then began making Chevrolets in 1923. There were generations of people for whom this was the best working-class work in town. And it was good work. I mean, at the end, General Motors was paying its UAW workers $28 an hour and really good benefits. This is what had been going on for a long time in Janesville, and it's what people had thought would continue.

SUAREZ: If you've heard of Janesville before, it might be because of Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House who talks about growing up there often. Here he is at a campaign event in Cleveland during his 2012 vice presidential run on Mitt Romney's ticket.


PAUL RYAN: I come from a town that has been hit as hard as any. A lot of guys I grew up with worked at the GM plant in my hometown, and they lost their jobs when that plant was closed. But what happened next - our town pulled together. Our churches and charities and friends and neighbors were there for one another. In textbooks, they call this civil society. I know it as Janesville, Wis.

SUAREZ: It's an important part of Paul Ryan's worldview - isn't it? - that it's not government that we should look to in times of crisis but each other. How did that play out in Janesville?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, Paul Ryan is deeply embedded in his hometown. As he puts it, he's fifth generation Janesville, and he had neighbors who he knew were losing their jobs. I mean, so this was pretty personal to him. But he has a worldview in which government is not the solution, and he really believes that there should be a layer of help in communities between the individual and the government, a layer of philanthropy.

And Janesville, I found, is a pretty philanthropic place. There are lots of fundraisers going on all the time for little nonprofits in town. But what I also found was that during this time when so much work had gone away, the need was rising and the amount of fundraising wasn't keeping up.

SUAREZ: We talked to one of the people you profiled in the book, Robert Borremans, who was running the Rock County job center when the GM plant closed. He led efforts to retrain factory workers and get them new careers, and it wasn't easy.

ROBERT BORREMANS: I remember one interview I did. A guy said my wife is going to have to go down to Fort Wayne, and it's not fair. I just want her to have her old job back, and we knew that wasn't going to happen.

SUAREZ: When he says Fort Wayne, by the way, he means Fort Wayne, Ind., which is a five-hour drive from Janesville. So there were GM gypsies heading to work during the week and then coming home on weekends, but not looking to move to Indiana. Why wouldn't they leave Janesville?

GOLDSTEIN: You know, there's kind of this mythos in this country sort of this theoretical idea that when work goes away in one place, well, people should just go to where work still exists. And what I found is that in Janesville, at least, which is a place where people really have roots and have extended families, people don't want to leave town.

So some of these former Janesville assembly workers made big sacrifices to keep their family income going by taking these jobs far away working in, as you say, Indiana and farther away in Texas and Kansas and coming home as best they can. And I've heard some of these people say they stay, say, in Fort Wayne, but their home is in Janesville.

SUAREZ: One of the most difficult parts to read was how upskilling and retraining and going back to community college didn't really change the outcomes for a lot of these workers.

GOLDSTEIN: It's a very popular idea that people who lose work should go to school and reinvent themselves. And it's striking that it's one of the few economic ideas in which both Democrats and Republicans tend to put stock. So I wanted to look at what was really happening. If you think about it, factory workers going back to school having lost their jobs, I mean - they were scared about studying. They were scared about how they were going to put dinner on the table. They were scared about what was going to come next. I mean, this was a pretty traumatic time.

And for these people to have to start studying on top of it all, it was a pretty big challenge. So what I looked at with the help of a couple of good labor economists was what did the data show? And it turned out that, you know, not today, but if you looked a few years out from when these jobs went away, on balance people who went back to school at the small technical college were less likely to have steady work all seasons of the year compared to people who had not retrained. And if you looked at their income from before the Great Recession to then, their income drops were greater.

SUAREZ: What did Janesville do when it came time to pick a president in 2016?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, it's interesting because, as you were saying at the beginning, Wisconsin went Republican for the first time in a long time. But Janesville and the county in which it is did not. I mean, this is a long time Democratic identified county. And in 2012, it had gone for Barack Obama for re-election 62 percent. This time in 2016, it voted 52 percent for Hillary Clinton. And if you look at the raw numbers, what is interesting is that it wasn't as if there were people shifting from Democratic voters to Republican voters.

There were almost no additional Republican votes, but the Democratic turnout had declined significantly. And the way I think about this - I mean, there's obviously a lot of talk these days about the role of the working class in putting Donald Trump in the White House. And the way that I've come to think about this is that the kind of economic experiences that people have had in Janesville are the same kinds of experiences that people have had elsewhere in less democratic places. And those experiences in other places perhaps motivated some people to vote for President Trump.

SUAREZ: Well, this book is the culmination of many years of work. Are you done with Janesville? Is Janesville done with you?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I'm going to be in Janesville next weekend...

SUAREZ: So I guess not (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: ...Talking with people at the public library about this work that I've done and how grateful I am that they let me get to know their town.

SUAREZ: Amy Goldstein is a reporter for The Washington Post and the author of "Janesville: An American Story." Amy, thanks for talking to us.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.