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Hard Times in Paul Ryan's Hometown

GM once guaranteed the people of Janesville, Wisc., a good wage for a hard job. Is the city becoming a symbol of the new austerity that leaves the poor behind?

Janesville still looks like Heartland, USA—a giant fiberglass cow even marks the entrance into town. But restaurants are all but empty, and school enrollment is down.Janesville still looks like Heartland, USA—a giant fiberglass cow even marks the entrance into town. But restaurants are all but empty, and school enrollment is down.

The strip club across the street from the plant is now an Alcoholics Anonymous joint. There are too many people in the welfare line who never would have imagined themselves there. Dim prospects and empty buildings. A motel where the neon "Vacancy" sign never seems to say "No Vacancy."

The owner is Pragnesh Patel. He is 36, looks a dozen years older. He left a good job near Ahmedabad, India, as a supervisor in a television factory, he says. He came to try his luck in America. He got a job in a little factory in Janesville that makes electronic components for GM. He also bought the motel just up the hill from the assembly plant. Now with the plant closed, he's down to three shifts a week at the components factory and having to make $2,500 monthly payments on his motel on Highway 51. He charges 45 bucks a night and today it's mostly the crackheads and the down-at-their-heels who come in for a crash landing. Welcome to America, except Patel has to raise his children amid this decay. "I'm trying, really trying to survive," he says. "I don't know anymore. I mean, I'm an American. I cast my lot here. But I have to tell you, on many days, I regret that I ever came."

There is a bar on the factory grounds that has become a funeral parlor. Yes, a bar on the factory grounds, not 500 feet from the time clock! Genius! It has been here since at least the Depression if the yellowed receipt from 1937 is to be believed. Five cases of beer for 8 dollars and 30 cents.

And in some way, that bar on the factory grounds might explain what happened here. "We used to have a drive-through window," says one of the former UAW workers gathered at Zoxx 411 Club and drinking a long, cool glass of liquor at three in the afternoon. He is about 50, about the age when a man begins to understand his own obsolescence. "Used to put two or three down and go back to work. Now those were the days, yes-siree."

Janesville was a company town, where generations of GM workers met at the VFW to cap off a hard day's work.Janesville was a company town, where generations of GM workers met at the VFW to cap off a hard day's work.You feel sorry for that autoworker until you hear he draws nearly three-quarters of his old salary for the first year of his layoff and half his salary for the second year of his layoff—plus benefits.

"It don't make sense to work," says the autoworker, buying one for the stranger.

If he finds a job, he says, they'll take his big check away.

"There ain't no job around here for $21 an hour," the autoworker says. "I might as well drink."

A taxpayer-funded wake. Good for him. Except you get the feeling that it's not good for a man to drink all day. Two years comes faster than a man thinks.

A town of Cooties and 4-Hers is now also a town of moving trucks and permanent yard sales.A town of Cooties and 4-Hers is now also a town of moving trucks and permanent yard sales.A little Detroit in the making, except Detroit has General Motors and Ford and Chrysler. Detroit is an industry town. Janesville had only General Motors. Janesville was a company town. You didn't have to go to college—but you might be able to send your kid there—because there was always GM. GM—Gimme Mine. GM—Grandma Moo, the golden cow. Now GM has Gone Missing. GM has Gone to Mexico.

"We took it for granted," says Nancy Nienhuis, 76, a retired factory nurse who farms on the outskirts of town. She did everything at that plant a nurse could do: tended to amputations, heart attacks, shotgun wounds inflicted by a jilted lover, even performed an exorcism of spiders from a crazy man's stomach. Whatever it took to keep those lines moving.

Unemployment in Janesville is now the highest in Wisconsin. The local food bank serves 10 percent more people than it did a year agoUnemployment in Janesville is now the highest in Wisconsin. The local food bank serves 10 percent more people than it did a year ago"The rumor would start, they're talking about closing the plant. No one would believe it. Then you saw the Toyota dealership open on the east side of town and still they didn't believe it. The manager and the worker sat next to each other in church, you see? They went to high school together. Understand? The good worker got no recognition over the bad worker. Nobody made waves about a guy drunk or out fishing on the clock. In the end, the last few years, management rode them pretty good. But by then it was a little too late."

Most laid-off GM assembly workers are paid severance for two years. "There's going to be hell to pay when those unemployment checks stop coming," says one resident.Most laid-off GM assembly workers are paid severance for two years. "There's going to be hell to pay when those unemployment checks stop coming," says one resident.

Richard, a former welder at the plant, puts a pastry box in Nurse Nancy's car. Richard begins to weep. He looks over his shoulder, wipes his nose on his sleeve and says, "I don't want my wife to see this. I'm 62 and I'm delivering doughnuts. What am I going to do?'"

Desperation comes in subtler ways than a grown man crying. The winner of the cakewalk at the local fair got not a cake—but a single, solitary cupcake. Parents don't come to the PTA as much anymore. A lot of kids will have left by the beginning of the school year, the superintendent says. Unemployment here is near 15 percent. The police blotter is a mix of Mayberry and Big City: Truancy, Truancy, Shots Fired at 2 p.m., Dog Barking, Burglary at 5 p.m., Burglary at 6 p.m.

 

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