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New Book Offers Bleak Look at Paul Ryan's Hometown

In 2008, Obama told GM factory workers in Janesville, Wisconsin, that the plant would "be here for another 100 years." It has since closed, leaving thousands unemployed.

detail from cover of Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldsteindetail from cover of Janesville: An American Story by Amy GoldsteinBarack Obama showed up at the General Motors factory in Janesville, Wisconsin, during the 2008 presidential campaign and proclaimed, "I believe that, if our government is there to support you and give you the assistance you need to retool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years."

Instead the plant closed, leaving thousands of its workers and those at related businesses unemployed.

Nor is Obama the only politician to intersect with the Janesville story. It's Paul Ryan's hometown. Ryan is Speaker of the House and was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012. His father lost the tip of his thumb to a piece of machinery in the plant, working summers during law school.

A reporter at The Washington Post, Amy Goldstein, tells this tale in her new book, Janesville: An American Story.

It's almost unbelievably grim.

Auto worker wages, once $28 an hour, have declined to $14 for new hires—$10 for some workers working for "suppliers" on the same factory floor.

Janesville, which you might have imagined as a wholesome, prosperous, middle class American city—something out of a Land's End catalog—turns out to have 400 homeless children, some of whom have been abandoned by their parents.

A United Auto Workers local that a decade ago had 7,000 active members now has 438, with 4,900 retirees.

Another large employer in the city, Parker Pen, was sold three times. The final buyer shut the factory and laid off the staff, but first paid longtime workers to fly to Mexico and train people there to do their old jobs.

One former auto industry employee goes back to school to become a prison guard, then commits suicide after cheating on her husband with an inmate.

Others become "GM gypsies," leaving their families behind for days at a time to commute to far-away GM jobs in other states.

Some families can't qualify for health care at a free clinic because the food stamps they are receiving push their income over the limit.

One family was turned away from a food pantry because their teenager, working three after-school jobs, earned too much for the family to qualify for help. The line at the food pantry starts forming outside two hours before it opens.

These are the sort of disgruntled Americans, facing economic anxiety, who elected Trump, right? Goldstein points out, though, that while Trump did carry Wisconsin's electoral votes, Janesville itself went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, as it went for Obama in 2012, notwithstanding Ryan's presence on the 2012 ticket.

What's the remedy?

Not education or job training, necessarily: Goldstein reports that laid-off workers who went back to school at the local technical college ended up worse off, financially, than those who did not.

Someone who understands Washington better than I do once explained to me that if you really want to understand a politician you need to know their home district. That was the genius of Michael Barone's classic Almanac of American Politics: it didn't just tell you about the congressman and where he or she went to college, it told you about who the big employers were, and what countries the great-grandparents of the voters in the district had come from.

Ryan comes off as a bit remote in Goldstein's telling, more absorbed in the long-term details of the federal budget than in the up-close trauma of Janesville families. But if you want to understand his motivations when it comes to bringing manufacturing back to the American heartland, finding more effective ways to combat poverty, and strengthening economic growth, you can do a lot worse than to start in Janesville.

Photo Credit: detail from cover of "Janesville: An American Story" by Amy Goldstein (Simon and Schuster)

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  • Mr. Flanders||

    "What's the remedy?"

    I thought you were actually going to propose a remedy...

  • Rhywun||

    "Get your ass off welfare and find something productive to do. If that means leaving Janesville, do so."

    Jeez people, this stuff isn't hard.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Not an option. Not from journalism at least.

    Case in point, this morning, I read an article about a woman that makes over $11,000 a month having trouble making ends meet.

    Some details were given. She was divorced, made some dodgy decisions which left her with a $25,000 bill to the IRS, under-reported her withholdings and lived in a $2,400 a month rental.

    Moving to cheaper housing in the Kent Valley or in Burien (or anywhere in South King County) was never an option. Ever.

  • ThomasD||

    "Get your ass off welfare and find something productive to do. If that means leaving Janesville, do so."

    I suspect demographic data would show that a tremendous amount of people already have done just this.

    The ones that remain often remain for a mix of reasons, Family situations are probably a major factor. But I suspect many of those who remain are the sorts we hear about in the news who do not have any way to come up with $500 to cover a major appliance, or auto deductible, etc. So the expense of relocating for a job (assuming they could even qualify) is rather insurmountable. Not surprisingly these are the sorts for whom job retraining is also of little benefit.

    Appalachia is about the same, in many towns about all that is left are health care and the school system. And both are on borrowed time.

  • Shirley Knott||

    "If you like your local factory, you can keep your local factory."

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I lay a lot of the blame on the increasing regulations, occupational licensing, zoning, minimum wage laws, and so on, because they decrease flexibility. Maybe most of the laid-off car workers wouldn't take up barbering or other work as a temporary stop gap; but they don't have that chance. Maybe they would move to other GM jobs, or other auto jobs, or other related jobs which don't require length retraining; but zoning drives up housing costs and makes it harder. Maybe they'd take minimum wage jobs just to make some money, or drive Uber or Lyft, or rent out empty nest bedrooms with AirBnB, or sell tasty home-cooked meals or run day cares for their neighbors; but they can't, because the elite have banned such escape routes in their wisdom.

    These are the unseen problems of which Bastiat warned us, and which so many libertarians continue to rant, but it falls on deaf ears. Over and over again, the elite take the tack that most people are too ignorant, naive, stupid, selfish, or just plain stupid to take care of themselves and their neighbors. People used to look out for each other andtake care of themselves when troubles hit; now they are forbidden from doing so.

  • Kivlor||

    Well, if those factory workers had ever thought about learning another skill or trade, and went back to school, they wouldn't have been in such dire straights.

    --" laid-off workers who went back to school at the local technical college ended up worse off, financially, than those who did not"--

    Oh...

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    It was the student loans, which they were probably ineligible for since they were such unwoke beasts.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    There's another story in there on this subject alone.

    What did they retrain for? Did they 'retool' themselves for jobs that didn't exist in Janesville? Sometimes going back to school requires other actions to go into motion as well.

    Step 1. Go back to school.
    Step 2. Learn something that has an actual ROI.
    Step 3. Be prepared to move to a place that can offer a job in what you got schooled in.

  • Kivlor||

    I forgot, everyone can just pack up and leave everything behind for California tomorrow, and there won't be any undesirable effects.

    Why didn't they just abandon everything, and run off to Cali, the land of milk and honey? I wonder...

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    No one suggests moving to California from Janesville. In fact, I'd recommend against it. But they might need to move to Oshkosh, or even a closer suburb of Milwaukee (which isn't that far away). If you live in a factory town and the factories are closed, and you want to keep a factory job, your options are thin.

    Options might include but not be limited to:

    Wait for factories to reopen. Suboptions include voting for the correct politician who will fix everything. Return to step 1, wait for factories to reopen after each election cycle.

    Move to another town where factories are open and are hiring. I have no idea with that manufacturing landscape looks like in Janesville or Wisconsin.

    Retrain in a new (or maybe slightly related field). See the comment you responded to. I've been in a similar situation. It's not easy. You have to choose wisely. If you choose wrong, you may spend a lot of capital retraining in an area no one wants. there are no easy answers.

    Find a job that doesn't require retraining, but might not pay what the old job paid.

    Go on welfare. While on welfare, return to step one and election cycle suboption.

  • JFree||

    They are working. Unemployment is not the problem in Janesville. Crappy jobs that are temporary are like most places. And the reality is that we've been killing off mobility for 50 years now - and its been falling like a rock for the last 25 or so years while we've been busy blowing bubbles and pretending that that's economic growth. That's what happens when wages/salaries as % of GDP drops - crappy jobs everywhere unless you can ride stock market gains while govt keeps financial bubbles propped up.

    But hey - maybe they can move to CA and flip houses to Chinese cash buyers. Or open a hedge fund. Or move to DC and suck off the public teat like their local Randian smokeblower.

  • ThomasD||

    Did they 'retool' themselves for jobs that didn't exist in Janesville?

    No. They were simply a cash crop harvested by 'technical college.'

  • ThomasD||

    Do not underestimate how much the government assistance complex is dependent upon not solving the problems.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Janesville itself went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, as it went for Obama in 2012, notwithstanding Ryan's presence on the 2012 ticket.

    You know what they say, if it's working for you, keep doing it.

  • Meh.||

    Yeah, that part gave me a little heartburn too, along with "Ryan comes off as a bit remote in Goldstein's telling, more absorbed in the long-term details of the federal budget than in the up-close trauma of Janesville families." So I'm wondering if this book will help me understand Ryan's motivations or his constituents at all, since they don't seem to be motivated by each other. I'm sure there are some insights to be gained, but I'm just not sure it's worth my money or time. The initial impression I'm getting is that this is yet another book jumping on the bandwagon trying to explain 2016, focusing more on the economy happening to people rather than the choices that individuals make, with a loose tie-in to Ryan.

  • Uncle Jay||

    New Book Offers Bleak Look at Paul Ryan's Hometown
    In 2008, Obama told GM factory workers in Janesville, Wisconsin, that the plant would "be here for another 100 years." It has since closed, leaving thousands unemployed.

    But at least the corporate rate in the USA is still the highest rate in the world at 37%, and Dear Leader Obama was wise enough not to lower that tax rate. So what if thousands of people are unemployed and economic stagnation continues in our country. Isn't having thousands of people being unemployed, have our manufacturing jobs exported overseas and have non-existent economic growth a small price to pay for furthering The Glorious People's Revolution like the little people in Cuba or North Korea enjoy today?
    I think we all know the answer to that one.

  • SilentSkies||

    By little I assume you mean not overweight?

  • Uncle Jay||

    Obvioiusly.
    NK has a wonderful diet program for the overweight masses.
    Its called "famine."
    It works first time, every time.

  • Cynical Asshole||

  • ThomasD||

    Also cuts out the need for public financing of pet shelters.

  • Robert||

    The final buyer shut the factory and laid off the staff, but first paid longtime workers to fly to Mexico and train people there to do their old jobs.


    Couldn't he have saved $ by doing that w/o buying the co.?

  • Alan Vanneman||

    So what has Paul Ryan done for the poor in Janesville or anywhere else? His health care "plan" would have cut their health subsidies in order to finance tax cuts for the rich. Ryan is an utter fraud. His one strength is his metrosexual good looks. Seriously, this guy is from the "heartland"? Where's his belly?

  • ||

  • Slocum||

    Auto worker wages, once $28 an hour, have declined to $14 for new hires—$10 for some workers working for "suppliers" on the same factory floor.

    Unskilled labor at $28/hour was never sustainable. But the unemployment rate in Janesville is currently a low 4% -- the same as the Wisconsin state average. Janesville also has a population that has continued growing through every single census since 1860. So, it just doesn't look like things are 'grim' or 'bleak' or that any particular remedies are needed.

  • Peter Schaeffer||

    Slocum, I guess you have no idea how the unemployment rate is calculated. Once a person stops looking for work, they are not longer considered to be "unemployed". The 400 abandoned children may not be correct. However, Janesville's problem are tragically real. "Free trade" is horribly expensive. We have towns like Janesville all across America. Of course, "free trade" is the libertarian thing to do and it certainly makes the rich, richer, Paradise right?

  • Peter Schaeffer||

    "Get your ass off welfare and find something productive to do. If that means leaving Janesville, do so."


    Moving is a great idea. But where? The "booming" cities have stratospheric real-estate prices (including rents), rock bottom schools, and miserably low wages (for all but the elite).


    In all cases, Open Borders is the culprit. Open Borders drives real-estate prices into the ionosphere, crashes public education and savages wages.


    There is no such thing as a viable society with Open Borders. There is no such thing as a viable libertarian society.

  • Unreconstructed (Sans Flag)||

    The level of ignorance you're displaying is epic. The Houston area is booming, real estate prices are reasonable, and, get this - we're a LOT closer to any "open" border than Wisconsin. The public schools around here are hit or miss, but it's fairly easy to avoid the worst culprits.

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