Janesville is a small city of 63,000 people in southern Wisconsin. Its winters are cold and long. Its population is 93% white and less than 2% black. Its congressman is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
A new book, Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein, has just been published. If you have read even this far, you are almost certainly asking, “Okay, what’s the punch line?” What does any of this have to do with the Virgin Islands? The answer: a lot.
If you are a Virgin Islander reading Janesville, by the time you get to page ten, you are saying to yourself, My God, this is about St. Croix. Because Janesville, while not quite a one-industry town, was largely dependent on a General Motors assembly plant that was its lifeblood, and had been for many decades. The plant employed 5,000 workers in good paying, “steady” jobs. The income from those jobs drove the town’s economy and community life.
Unlike the Virgin Islands delegate to Congress, by law, a marginal figure, Paul Ryan, even ten years ago, was a rising star in the Republican firmament. As a result, in 2008, he was given the courtesy of a phone call. The call was from the chairman and CEO of General Motors. The message was a simple one: we are closing the Janesville plant. If the workers are willing, they can commute to GM plants in Texas or Kansas to keep their good paying jobs. The five million square foot plant closed.
Then the dominoes start to fall. Suppliers go under, taking more jobs with them. Many fathers do commute, while others seek out far lower paying jobs because they are all that is available. Families come under stress, kids show up for school hungry because there is no food in the house. Civic life suffers as charities, now more important than ever, see their funding shrink because people don’t have money or time to donate. At the empty plant, a security guard.
Even in the early chapters, on page after page, what keeps popping into your mind is not General Motors. It is Hovensa, Hovensa, Hovensa! As Bill Kossler’s reporting in the Source has revealed, the single biggest blow that the territory has taken in recent years was the Hovensa closing.
What is so striking in reading Janesville is that the consequences of these actions are universal, and, as Amy Goldstein demonstrates, there is nothing abstract about them. These lives may be “collateral damage” to CEOs, investment bankers and shareholders, but “on the ground” in Janesville, St. Croix or elsewhere, the damage to people’s lives is real and enormous.
Our country doesn’t handle these problems well at all. We are now more of a market society than a society with a market economy. Lost your job? Too bad. As Janesville demonstrates, “retraining” is no solution, especially for older workers in places with few options. Wherever those solutions are, we are not employing them. And the people of Janesville and St. Croix pay the price.