You’re put in a town that implodes when the car plant closes down and 9000 people lose their jobs. GM was a mess – incompetent management, old models, a company that failed to innovate. As if that wasn’t enough Janesville is hit with Biblical levels of rain (climate change?). Journalism at its best, by a Poulitzer-winning writer, written from the perspective of the people affected. Want to know why working America is pissed? Read this book. Told with compassion but realism, through the lives of real people in a real town.
For over 100 years they had produced tractors, pick-ups, trucks, artillery shells and cars. Obama came and went, the financial crisis hammered them deeper into the dirt but while the banks were bailed by the state, the state bailed on the people. On top of this a second large, local employer, Parker Pens, outsourced to Mexico but the market for upmarket pens was also dying. The ignominy of being asked to extend your wages by a few weeks by going down to Mexico to train their cheaper labour was downright evil.
Then the adjunct businesses started to fail, the suppliers, trades, shops, restaurants, nurseries for two income families – then the mortgage and rent arrears, foreclosures, house prices fall, negative equity. As middle-class jobs go they push down on working lass jobs and the poor get poorer.
“Family is more important than GM” this is the line that resonated most with me in the book. In this age of identity politics, most people still see a stable family and their community as their backstops. The left and right have lost focus on this. The community didn’t lie down – they fought for grants, did lots themselves to raise money, help each other – but it was not enough.
Grants for retraining were badly targeted, training people for reinvention is difficult for monolithic, manufacturing workforces. Some of it was clearly hopeless, like discredited Learning Style diagnosis, overlong courses of limited relevance to the workplace or practice. Problems included the fact that many couldn’t use computers, so there was huge drop out, more debts and little in the way of workplace learning. Those that did full degrees found that what few jobs there were had been snapped up while they were in college – their wages dropped the most, by nearly half. One thing did surprise me, the curious offshoot that was anti-teacher hostility. People felt let down by a system that doesn’t really seem to work and saw teachers as having great holidays, pensions and healthcare, while they were thrown out of work. The whole separation of educational institutions from workplaces seems odd.
Jobs didn’t materialise. What jobs there are, exist in the public sector – in welfare charities and jails. A start-up provided few jobs, many commuted like gypsies to distant factories. Even for those in work, there was a massive squeeze on wages, in some cases a 50% cut, sometimes more. In the end jobs came back but real wages fell. Healthcare starts to become a stretch. But it’s the shame of poverty, using food banks, homeless teenagers and a real-life tragedy 200 pages into the book that really shakes you over.
The book ends with the divide between the winners and losers. This is the divide that has shattered America. Janesville is the bit of America tourists, along with East and West coast liberals don’t see. The precariat are good people who are having bad things done to them by a system that shoves money upwards into the pockets of the rich. Looked down upon by Liberals, they are losing faith in politics, employers, the media, even education.
Wisconsin turned Republican and Trump was elected. The economist Mark Blyth attributes the Trump win to their wages squeeze and fall in expectations, even hope. People got a whole lot poorer and don’t see a great future for their kids.
A more relevant piece of work than Hillbilly Elegy, with which it is being compared. Final thought –why are journalists in the UK not doing this? Answer – they’re bubble-wrapped in their cozy London lairs, part of the problem and too lazy to get out and do their jobs… writing the same stories about why they don’t like social media, failing to see that they are the purveyors, not so much of fake new but inauthentic news, irrelevant news, news reduced to reporting on shadows within their own epistemological cave… one exception - John Harris.