'Janesville': What Happens to an Industrial Town When the Factory Closes

May 2, 2017

For nearly a century, people in Janesville, Wisconsin built automobiles. General Motors first set up shop there in 1919, and quickly became the heart of the town. Over the decades, generations of families born and raised in Rock County would go on work at the plant.

But all that changed in 2008, when General Motors shuttered the plant, then its oldest factory in existence. The resulting ripple effect led as many as 9,000 people in the city and surrounding communities to lose their jobs.

Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein, examines what first led to Janesville's heyday and the aftermath of the GM plant’s closure. Goldstein is a Washington Post reporter, who wanted to explore what it's like for cities like Janesville after its many industry leave, and why it's often so difficult to rebuild a stable working class. 

"I wanted to write about one community as a metaphor for what was going on in lots of places in the United States out of this big thing that was called the Great Recession of 2007 to mid-2009," Goldstein explains.

What happened in Janesville is not unusual. Since the late 1970s, cities throughout the nation have struggled to keep manufacturing plants. During the Great Recession, more than 2 million people lost jobs in manufacturing

"There were lots of people in lots of kinds of fields who had lost work, or knew people who'd lost work or were apprehensive that they might lose work," she says. "So I thought that if I could show in one community what was happening, that perhaps other people could identify from this and learn from this." 

"I thought that if I could show in one community what was happening, that perhaps other people could identify from this and learn from this."

Goldstein first traveled to Janesville in 2011, about two and half years after the plant closed. In many ways, the community was still reeling from the loss of the plant and trying to cope with the fallout, which many thought would be short-lived. 

"When I first began visiting Janesville... I kept hearing people in town telling me, 'Just wait, it's still gonna reopen.' I mean, that was a pretty widespread hope for years," she explains. "I think that that hope persisted because the assembly had been the heart of Janesville's economy for so long, and over the decades it had lost products, it had gained products. And even when times got hard and there were layoffs for a period, another product had always come in to replace it."

"People have tried and are still trying really hard to find new paths forward. It's not an easy thing to do. And I find that Janesville's a pretty resilient place and I wanted readers of this book to understand what trying hard looks like."

The book details the different ways people coped with the loss of the plant. Many former plant employees went back to school and trained for different careers, others continued to work at GM plants in other parts of the country. Everyone struggled in different ways.

"People have tried and are still trying really hard to find new paths forward. It's not an easy thing to do. And I find that Janesville's a pretty resilient place and I wanted readers of this book to understand what trying hard looks like," says Goldstein. 

Most former plant workers received Supplemental Unemployment Benefits from GM and unemployment benefits, but the payments didn't last forever. Once the benefits became too low to live on, many of the former plant workers relied on local charities to get clothes for their children or to buy groceries. Sometimes their kids would work to help pay the bills.

Goldstein hopes Janesville may "stoke a little bit of empathy" from her readers. 

"People who are living perfectly middle-class lives, who are doing everything right, can have an economic event come along that really changes the path of their life. And I wanted people to see what that looks like up close," she explains.