In "Janesville," Amy Goldstein showed how the effects of the recession on Paul Ryan's hometown reveal hard truths about the US..
In the lead up to and aftermath of the election of President Donald Trump, a flood of reporters from big cities traveled to central and southern states to speak to so-called "Real Americans" to get help understanding how so many people had totally underestimated Trump's ascension.
While some great reporting came out of those trips, there were also stories that seemed to treat these citizens like zoo animals, to be observed and analyzed.
Amy Goldstein's "Janesville" did not take such an approach, and that's part of the reason why it won the Financial Times and McKinsey's award for Business Book of the Year. The title was awarded by a panel that included FT editor Lionel Barber, Mozilla chairwoman Mitchell Baker, Allianz chief economic adviser Mohamed El-Erian, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra, McKinsey director of publishing Rik Kirkland, University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Randall Kroszner, economist Dambisa Moyo, and Santander chairwoman Shriti Vadera.
Goldstein is a veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter who covered the social impact of the Great Recession. When General Motors shut down its manufacturing plant in Janesville, Wisconsin — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's hometown — Goldstein took notice of the struggling town, which would also lose the Parker Pen manufacturing plant.
She arrived in 2011 and spent the next several years building relationships. The story she emerged with was published in 2017 at a time when many Americans were looking for an explanation for what was happening with their country. Some lessons from her experience went against conventional wisdom.
During the recession, both President Barack Obama and Ryan agreed across party lines that technical colleges could provide a path out of unemployment. Even today, it's a mainstream, bipartisan position to say that "closing the skills gap" through specialized, job-specific training is a way to deal with jobs that have either gone outside the country or will soon be replaced by automation.
But even though Janesville is a single Wisconsin town and can't represent the entirety of the country, Goldstein found that skills-based training is not a simple fix at all, and may even be a worse option for some people, since it both delays a job search and potentially pigeonholes graduates into a job that may not be available by the time they finish school.
Goldstein spent time with the Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville and compiled data with the help of the economists Kevin Hollenbeck and Laura Dresser. "The findings were surprising: Job retraining, it turned out, was not a path to more work or better pay in and around Janesville, at least not during this time when jobs were so scarce."
In a speech about her book at Janesville's public library earlier this year, Goldstein made it clear that she was not denigrating Blackhawk, which she noted had done excellent work for more than a century and was effective at sufficiently training students for specific jobs. The problem is simply that in desperate times, studying for a specific job is far from a guarantee that the job will be available in your area after two years of learning how to do it.
In a 2013 survey of 2,000 residents of Rock County, in which Janesville lies, the majority of people who either lost a job or had a member of the household who did reported signs of impaired mental and physical health.
Sixty-three percent reported cutting back on doctor's visits and medical treatment, while also reporting regular lack of sleep and an increase in anxiety and anger in addition to strained family relationships.
The suicide rate across the county doubled during the time Goldstein did her research.
Goldstein found that many Janesville residents were going to extreme measures to make up for their lost $28 hourly wage from the GM plant. One of the men she followed has spent the last few years working five days a week at a union-guaranteed GM job in Indiana, sleeping hundreds of miles away from his family in a small apartment.
She saw throughout Janesville that those who have recently fallen out of the middle class have struggled much more than those who had always been poor, largely because of a lack of a safety net.
During her speech in Janesville, Goldstein remarked on the spirit of the town's citizens, and their overwhelming desire to do whatever it takes to recover.
But after reading "Janesville," it becomes obvious that no amount of can-do spirit is going to bring things back to the way we were. Some new distribution center jobs and workers' willingness to travel hundreds of miles for work has helped lower the unemployment rate to a healthy 4%. But in that same time, real wages have halved, and now in some families, one member may have to live in another state most of the week in order to find work.
There is no simple solution to help communities that remain ravaged by the recession and the disappearance of factory jobs; no way to guarantee that hard work will bring success.
As McKinsey's global managing partner Dominic Barton said after Goldstein won his company's award: "'Janesville' is a deeply reported story that raises critical questions about the impact of economic disruption on communities, without offering simplistic answers. It is an American story, as the subtitle suggests, but also a truly global one."