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Here's what happens when good jobs go away, and don't come back

Call it the painfully long tail of the Great Recession: about two of every five people who lose a job these days, according to census figures, cannot find another one for six months or longer.
GM Struggles To Survive As The Gov't Imposed Restructuring Deadline Looms
This 2009 file photo shows a fence surrounding the shuttered GM assembly plant in Janesville, Wis.Scott Olson / Getty Images / Getty Images North America

Call it the painfully long tail of the Great Recession: about two of every five people who lose a job these days, according to census figures, cannot find another one for six months or longer.

Even as overall unemployment has been improving, this long-term unemployment hasn’t been getting better – and it’s far worse than at any other time since the government began keeping track after World War Two.

Amy Goldstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer on leave from The Washington Post, has spent the past 1-1/2 years researching the small city of Janesville, Wis., taking an intensely close look at what has happened in one community where thousands of people lost their jobs when the country’s oldest operating auto plant closed its doors. More than four years later, many of the people laid off from the plant and other local companies are still struggling to find a job with decent pay—or any job at all.

Goldstein talked to NBC News about the book she is writing and what she has learned during her time in Janesville.

Tell us a little about your project and the questions you are trying to answer.

Amy Goldstein: I am writing about what’s happened in one perfectly ordinary community since a lot of jobs there vanished a few years ago. When work goes away, what happens then? That’s my main question. I’m doing this because there’s been a real problem in this country lately with people being laid off and then stuck out of work. And, a lot of people who do manage to work again are ending up in part-time jobs or full-time ones with worse pay, because that’s all they could find. So that means people in the United States are falling out of the middle class, and that seemed to me a big, important change, and I wanted to understand close-up what it really looks like.

Why, of all the places you could have been writing about, did you pick Janesville?

For starters, I wanted a place that had never been part of the Rust Belt, so that I’d be looking just at the effects of the country’s recent economic crisis and not at decades of accumulated economic decay. Janesville definitely fit the bill. Two days before Christmas of 2008, the Janesville Assembly Plant shut down. It belonged to General Motors and was a 4.8 million square foot behemoth that had begun turning out Chevrolets in 1923. When it closed, it laid off about 3,000 people and took thousands of other jobs with it, because Janesville also had local companies that had supplied goods and services to the plant, and when GM went away, they went away too. And after that, some small businesses couldn’t make it either.

Janesville also had been the home of Parker Pen, which at one point was the world’s largest manufacturer of writing instruments. It eventually was sold, and the company’s final Janesville workers lost their jobs early in 2010. And because these industries had been around so long, a lot of families have deep roots in town, so I thought that would make it interesting.

Plus, it’s interesting politically. It happens to be the hometown of Paul Ryan. I actually picked Janesville a year before Mitt Romney picked Rep. Ryan last summer as his running mate. So you have a leading conservative as the congressman who represents what’s basically an old union town. And it’s in Wisconsin, which is led by a polarizing Republican governor, Scott Walker, who last year became the first U.S. governor ever to survive a recall election.

So, what does it look like in a community when thousands of good, middle-class jobs go away and they don’t come back?

I think the main thing I’ve been learning is that falling out of the middle class is very different than having been poor all along. If you’ve grown up poor – been in generational poverty, it’s called – you are used to it. Often, people around you are poor and, even if there are not great options, you pretty much know what to do: apply for what used to be known as food stamps, for instance, or go to the local emergency room if you’re sick. But when you’ve always thought of yourself as middle class, and suddenly you’ve tumbled downhill, well, that can be a real stunner. You don’t want your neighbors to know, and you’re not sure where to turn for help. You don’t even want to ask for help, because you never saw yourself as someone who would need it.

Beyond the changes for people who have lost jobs, a lot of other things in town have changed, too. The school system, for instance, has had to adjust because now more than half the kids are poor enough for federal lunch subsidies – double what it was a few years ago. A little health clinic that has been around for a long time – and treats just people who are uninsured – is now overwhelmed. So is the main food pantry in town, which has to turn people away some mornings. Janesville is a very generous-spirited place, with fundraising going on all the time; but it’s hard to keep up with the new demand.

And the cleavage points in town have changed. Some people used to resent the GM’ers, who had such good wages and benefits. Now, some people are angry at schoolteachers for similar reasons; at least one teacher has changed when she goes grocery shopping, because she’d gotten yelled at in the store more than once by people in town who resented her summers off and her pension.

Tell us about just a few of the people you’ve met in Janesville whose individual experiences tell a larger story.

I’ve met people who are trying hard to help their family and their community: Twins girls – bright and aware high school seniors – who are juggling a lot of jobs (they have become Tupperware saleswomen, among other things) and buy the groceries now and then because their parents are low on cash. People who commute to jobs at other GM plants hundreds of miles away from their families. A social studies teacher who has created a “closet” at her school so kids whose families are struggling can pick up canned food or used jeans.

You wrote an article about job retraining for the dislocated workers of Janesville. As you pointed out, the idea of retraining has a lot of bipartisan political support, and it sounds like a great idea – teach people how to do the jobs that are available so they can get back on their feet. Does retraining work?

I think retraining can work, but it doesn’t always. I looked at a two-year college in Janesville, called Blackhawk Tech, which was deluged with former factory workers. It’s been doing basically everything that policymakers recommend: working closely with local employers, steering students into fields where jobs seem most likely to exist, providing extra help for these people who’d been thrown out of their jobs and, sometimes, were scared, angry, depressed and nervous about whether they could succeed in school. Still, not everyone who has retrained there has found a good job – or any job at all. As one counselor at the college told me, “Retraining, yes. But retraining for what?”