New book looks at Janesville's post-2008 struggles

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, April 16, 2017

JANESVILLE—A Washington Post reporter spent big chunks of her life in Janesville and surrounding areas in recent years.

The result is a book: “Janesville: An American Story.” It's about the pain this community endured after the General Motors plant closed in 2008.

Janesvillians can read this book with pride in our gumption, if they can get through the passages that show how we failed.

Goldstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, looks at not just the economic crisis but also how those stressors tore at the fabric of an admirable community and its can-do spirit, and ripped the ties that bind families together.

Most Janesvillians will recognize someone in the book. There are the Vaughns and Wopats of GM/UAW fame, Ann Forbeck of Project 16:49, politicians Paul Ryan, Deb Kolste, Tim Cullen and Scott Walker.

But we also hear from lesser-knowns: banker Mary Willmer, the Whiteaker family, Parker High School teacher Deri Wahlert (now Eastman) and former Lear Corp. worker Kristi Beyer.

Goldstein takes us inside efforts to pull Rock County back from becoming another Gary, Indiana.

We see Rock County Board member and GM retiree Marv Wopat persuading the board, in closed session, to bump its offer to GM for a new production line from $5 million to $20 million.

As we know, GM said "no," and the money was never spent.

We see the inner workings of the business group Rock County 5.0, and we feel the travails of families—some who succeeded, some who failed, and some who are still working on it.

We see hometown hero Rep. Paul Ryan intensely involved in the crisis and at times remote from it.

The book walks through some of the toughest times in the county's history and the country's history. It tells how politics tore us apart into two warring camps.

We think we know what has happened here over the past nine years. We don't know it all. Goldstein fills in some of those gaps.

To read this book is to feel inspired by the hard-working people of our community and to shed a tear for those who also worked hard but didn't make it.

We see some of our neighbors making mistakes, some sinking into despair, some who made it through with equal measures of luck and sweat.

Goldstein also finds good, civic-minded people working hard to find practical, nonpartisan solutions for their community. It's a quality of Janesville that she returns to repeatedly.

She touches on local history, from the contributions of J.A. Craig and George S. Parker, to the UAW's landmark sit-down strike of 1936, to the massive protests over the union-busting Act 10 of 2011.

Goldstein also keeps an eye on the big picture: how government tried to help, and what worked, and what didn't.

For example, we see Parker High School teacher Deri Wahlert in a 2012 conversation with a student whose family can't afford food but still has too much money to qualify for ECHO's food pantry. She calls the school social worker.

“Parker used to have two social workers, but that was before budget cuts. It's down to one, even though nearly half the 1,400 kids now come from families with incomes low enough that the federal government pays for their school lunches.”

Goldstein looks closely at Blackhawk Technical College's efforts to retrain laid-off workers.

She praises those who led the effort but finds fault with the results.

An economic survey commissioned for the book found, three years after the plant closed, “Nearly 2,000 laid-off people in and around Janesville have studied at Blackhawk. Only about one in three has a steady job. … People who have found a new job without retraining are being paid, on average, about 8 percent less than they were paid before.

“But those who went to Blackhawk are being paid, on average, one-third less than before.”

Bob Borremans, of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, is featured prominently in the book. He told The Gazette this week that it's true: Technical school training tends not to pay off handsomely in the short term because graduates typically start out at the bottom rungs of their new professions.

Borremans, who studied outcomes of technical training for his doctorate, said the payback from technical college is seen only after many years.

Borremans wishes more could have been done. He sees blue-collar workers “not benefiting as much as the rest of us that have more education and have a different position in life. So I still see the haves and the have-nots, and that is disconcerting, because we tried to bring everybody up so we wouldn't have that class distinction.”

Goldstein comes to a similar conclusion, seeing two Janesvilles: those who are still not back to the level of prosperity they had before 2008 and those who have prospered.

Nevertheless, “I think we did the right things. I think the community came together, really responded,” Borremans said. “There wasn't finger-pointing. There was, 'How can we get through this?'

“Looking back now, the community came together and responded, I think, like not many communities would have, given all the circumstances.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Frank Schultz has had a few beers with Amy Goldstein over the years and engaged in informal conversations about Janesville, but he was not a source for the book.

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