The problems of poverty in America’s small towns

Janesville book coverJanesville: An American Story
By Amy Goldstein
Published by Simon & Schuster, £20
(Buy on Amazon)

Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election has led to a surge in interest in the problems of poverty in America’s small towns and rural areas. Goldstein, a journalist at The Washington Post, is the latest to focus on the topic, with this book “about the ordinary people of Janesville in southern Wisconsin, and how they lost their jobs, their pride and their future when General Motors closed its oldest assembly plant there in 2008”, says Patti Waldmeir in the Financial Times. It captures “the pain of breadwinners who no longer are, of stay-at-home moms who must suddenly support everyone, of teens who take two or three after-school jobs to help pay their parents’ grocery bills”.

Goldstein “opts for complexity over facile explanations and easy polemics”, notes Jennifer Senior in The New York Times. For example, she shows that unemployment in Janesville has now fallen back to pre-crisis levels, yet “real wages in the town have fallen”, “marriages have collapsed” and “unity and native spirit has capitulated to the same partisan rancour that afflicts the rest of the nation”. And her findings go against the consensus on how to tackle this. “In the case of the many laid-off workers in the Janesville area, the outcomes are decidedly worse for those who have attended the local technical college to learn a new trade.”

“Goldstein is a talented storyteller, and we root for her characters as, moment by moment, they try their hardest,” says Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker. Indeed, what makes this so “haunting” is that “the people of Janesville do nearly everything right”. Despite their efforts, “the mostly immovable reality” is that industrial decline means that “there is no way out of the maze”. Meanwhile, “the same politicians who tell hopeful stories about hardworking Americans find it hard to talk about helping the needy, even when those two apparently disparate groups of people are, in fact, the same”.