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Author Amy Goldstein talks about her book and its insights into America’s heartland

Amy Goldstein

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Goldstein has worked for 30 years as a staff writer for the Washington Post.

Over the weekend Goldstein will visit Traverse City to talk about her book, Janesville, which follows a small Wisconsin town after a General Motors factory shuts down there.

Goldstein sat down with Ben Thorp to talk about her book and what the town of Janesville can tell us.

Ben: Janesville follows the lives of the residents of Janesville, Wisconsin from 2008-2013 after the closure of the General Motors plant there. I’m wondering if you can start by talking about why it was important to focus on that town in the aftermath of that closure.

Goldstein: I began thinking about doing a close up of what happens when good work goes away towards the end of the Great Recession, which was now about a decade ago. I had a sense that a lot of good writing was being done about the macro view of what was happening given how bad the economy was. I didn’t see a lot of in-depth writing being down about what it does to people to have good middle-class wages go away and jobs disappear.

Ben: I think one of the things you do so well is you show the domino effect that this closure has. We’re able to see all the different ways that one factory closing leads to another factory closing, can you talk about that?

Goldstein: All told in the county for which Janesville is the county seat in Southern Wisconsin about 9,000 jobs vanished in 2008 and 2009. About 3,000 jobs were at the GM plant itself. Others of those jobs were at supplier companies that existed because the General Motors plant was there. Little business had trouble keeping going. I remember talking to the owners of bowling alleys who said because there were fewer people who had disposable income there weren’t as many bowling leagues each week. So that’s the kind of ripple effect that happens in the community when industrial jobs go away. It’s not just those jobs that vanish it’s the effect on all kinds of other people in town.

Ben: You also conducted a study while you were in the process of doing the reporting for this book. That study found that retraining was not necessarily going to be better, and in fact that it was not better than the factory workers who went elsewhere for work. Can you talk about that study and why that was important for this book?

Goldstein: Well, I was very interested in the question of retraining because it seemed to me that if I was going to be looking at jobs going away the next question is can people find a way to get back on their feet economically. So I ended up working with a couple of labor economists on a statistical analysis of job retraining looking at what happened to people who had been laid off in this part of Southern Wisconsin who had and had not gone back to school. The results, as you had suggested, were pretty sobering. It turned out that people who did go back to school by a few years later were less likely to have jobs than those who hadn’t retrained. And if they had work were more likely to have had a bigger pay drop from before the recession to a few years afterwards. Now, I don’t think that’s an indictment of job retraining all together all around the country. But I think it does suggest how hard this idea of figuring out something new and preparing for it is in a place where jobs were slow to return.

Ben: The book does close where unemployment is down to 4% in the town of Janesville but you also give us a painting of wages are stagnant, home values have largely gone down, I’m wondering if you can talk about what we can learn from Janesville and what you think Janesville says about America writ large.

Goldstein: Well, on the point about unemployment having fallen that’s true in Janesville as it is around the country. But if you look at the kinds of jobs that exist and the wages industrial work hasn’t come back to this part of Southern Wisconsin. So people have been learning to make do with jobs that pay less and often come with many fewer benefits. I think the other thing I learned getting to know people in Janesville is that losing work is a very hard experience in several ways. It doesn’t just mean the loss of an income it also is a loss of identity. As another part of the research for this book, I worked with some academics on a survey of this part of Southern Wisconsin looking at the effects of job loss on peoples economic experiences and attitudes. A lot of people reported to us that they were losing sleep, that this had had a hard effect on their social lives, on their family lives. And people reported to us that they felt that somehow it was a source of shame that they hadn’t been able to keep their jobs. Which I found really striking given that this was a community in which thousands of people had lost exactly the same kind of work at exactly the same time. But people take losing work very personally and that’s one of the lessons I learned.

Ben: Amy, thank you so much for taking the time and talking to me today.

Amy: Pleasure to speak with you.

Amy Goldstein will be in Traverse City on Saturday as part of the National Writers Series.

You can listen to the full, unedited interview here: