Rep. Paul Ryan was eight minutes into his maiden speech as the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate when his brow furrowed. “Over the years,” he said, “I have seen and heard from a lot of families, from a lot of those who are running small businesses and from people who are in need, but what I’ve heard lately, that’s what troubles me the most. There’s something different in their voice, in their words. What I hear from them are diminished dreams, lowered expectations, uncertain futures.”
What Ryan did not mention last Saturday in Norfolk, with a battleship and bunting behind him, is this: In few places have dreams become more diminished and futures more uncertain than in his home town. Janesville, Wis., is a community of 63,000 near the Illinois border where Ryan still returns on weekends and is sometimes an usher at St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church. It has a proud industrial past — and a job base that was shredded in the recent recession.
Ryan has emerged as his party’s star advocate of smaller government, free markets and conservative social policies. Could places like the small, park-studded city where he grew up be healed by the ideas that catapulted him onto the GOP presidential ticket?
Janesville was the home of the Parker Pen Co. from the late 1880s until the manufacturer was sold and gradually left town, laying off a final 140 workers in 2010. But for nearly a century, the main engine of the local economy was a hulking General Motors plant alongside the Rock River. The Janesville assembly plant began to turn out cars in the early 1920s and at its height employed 7,000 people, pulling in family members one generation to the next. It was the oldest operating auto plant in the country when it shut down at the end of 2008. Its closing triggered layoffs of more than 5,000 people and roughly $225 million in lost payroll at the plant and at local companies that supplied goods and services to GM.
Some families have left town. Some that used to enjoy their boats and summer cabins have been turning up at the local food pantry, on Medicaid rolls and in foreclosure listings.
In the days since Ryan became one of the GOP’s two leading men, the people of Janesville, of all political beliefs, have been reveling in the reflected glory of their native son. But already, there are hints of unease about whether, if their congressman were to reach the White House, his fiscal views would serve his community well.
In his budget proposal, the “Roadmap for America’s Future,” Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, lays out a path to curb federal spending and taxes that would redefine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — the main fibers of the nation’s social safety net and big drivers of federal deficits into the future.
“It can’t possibly hurt to have the vice president of the United States come from Janesville,” said state Sen. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democrat and long-respected local figure who has worked extensively with Ryan and likes him. But of Ryan’s pure faith in the private sector to meet social needs, Cullen said that in a town like Janesville, “it’s a mismatch.”
I have spent the past year exploring the effects of vanished jobs in the place that happens to be Ryan’s home town. Janesville is appealing as a microcosm because, even though the economy has been bruised there lately more than in many other places, the shape of its job losses largely matches the national pattern. The recent recession stole more jobs from manufacturing than from any other sector, more from men than from women, and it had a substantial impact on people who were not highly educated but were well-paid.
Janesville is an old United Auto Workers town that tilts Democratic, but with Ryan’s natural charm, prominent family, savvy politics and relatively weak opponents, the people of Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District keep sending him to Washington by comfortable margins. He was first elected to Congress in 1998, at age 28, a full decade before the GM plant closed and he issued the first version of the “Roadmap” that would make him a conservative icon.
Even before Mitt Romney chose him as his running mate, Ryan’s focus in the past couple of years was becoming more national. While he continued to hold “listening sessions” with his constituents and was a familiar figure around Janesville, he wasn’t at public events quite as often. He began to get heckled by older people in town because of his ideas for Social Security and Medicare. And the caustic politics surrounding Wisconsin’s conservative governor, Scott Walker (R), made Ryan a lightning rod, too. Last Sunday, when he and Romney flew to Wisconsin — the new GOP ticket’s first appearance in Ryan’s home state — they did not appear in Janesville. They went to the convention center in Waukesha, the state’s Republican core, just north of Ryan’s congressional district.
Still, Ryan has not shunned his home town’s needs. When General Motors announced that it might close the Janesville assembly plant, Wisconsin’s then-governor, Jim Doyle, a Democrat, assigned a task force to try to save it. Cullen was a co-chairman, and he recalls that Ryan quietly went to Detroit on his own to meet with company officials. And he “met with GM people in Washington. We didn’t succeed, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try hard,” the state senator said. “There was no elected official who worked harder to save that plant.” And Ryan voted in favor of $14 billion in federal loans to bail out the U.S. auto industry. The vote was on Dec. 10, 2008, 13 days before the Janesville plant shut down.
John Beckord, the president of Forward Janesville, a private economic-development group, said that Ryan comes in to talk with its board of business leaders, most of whom are “100 percent for his fiscal policy. . . . There’s a constant battle between the obvious, immediate difficulties certain people are facing and what Paul talks about, which is the big picture” of how to reduce federal deficits and put the country and families on a lasting, sound course.
Yet it is clear that some of Ryan’s votes and policy ideas collide with what Janesville has been going through. When he opposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus package enacted in February 2009 — less than two months after the GM plant closed — Ryan famously derided the legislation as a “wasteful spending spree.” He also opposed a bill in early March of that year to help Americans avoid home foreclosures, as foreclosures back home were on the verge of shooting up. That same winter, he voted against an expansion of a state-federal insurance program for children, CHIP, even as Janesville families were losing their health coverage along with their jobs. And near the end of 2010, he voted against a child nutrition bill that continued subsidies for school lunches, even though the share of Janesville schoolchildren qualifying for such subsidies has doubled in the past few years to about 50 percent.
Back home, Medicaid rolls have swollen, as well. The number of people in Rock County getting such health coverage (BadgerCare, as Wisconsin calls it) has risen by about 40 percent since the year before the GM plant closed, according to state figures. And under changes in Medicaid rules that Walker pushed through and that took effect last month, some people no longer will qualify for the program, and others will have to start helping to pay, or pay more, for their care — or be cut off. Ryan’s proposal to redefine Medicaid would press farther, converting the program, which is paid for jointly by the federal government and states, from an entitlement for everyone who qualifies to a block grant program in which states would have more latitude over how many people they covered and how much money they spent.
And Janesville’s congressman has not had much interest in federal programs that help laid-off people search or train for new jobs, said Robert Borremans, who runs the Rock County Job Center in a sprawling former K-Mart. In the nine years he’s been there, Borremans said, he has never persuaded Ryan to visit. “I’ve reached the point I don’t ask anymore.”
The local unemployment rate is hovering around 9 percent, down from nearly 14 percent in 2009 but still above the national rate and much higher than Wisconsin’s average. But because Janesville’s job losses are no longer new, the aid the county is getting this year from the biggest federal source of funding to help dislocated workers, the Workforce Investment Act, has fallen by 23 percent. The job center has cut staff and is planning this fall to shut a day-care center where parents drop off their kids while they look for work. In such a climate, Borremans said, Ryan “just does not seem to grasp that these people can’t just automatically go back to work. It takes time and needs resources.”
This spring and summer, cracks have started appearing in the few shoestring nonprofits in town that try to help people who have lost jobs and fallen out of the middle class. This coming week, the board of HealthNet, a small clinic that treats uninsured patients, is scheduled to decide how to cut services to make up a $40,000 to $60,000 deficit. Already, the clinic has begun reducing the number of patients it enrolls each week. And at ECHO (Everyone Cooperating to Help Others), the main place to go for emergency food and other assistance, the demand was so outstripping its capacity that, for the month of June, it closed on Fridays. It has stopped giving out bus fare.
A primary reason for these strains is that private philanthropy — which Ryan says he prefers to government subsidies — has withered, because fewer people in town can afford to give to charity. To save money, the two United Way chapters in the county have just merged, laying off three of the six workers in the Janesville office.
After 19 years at United Way, where she was a key figure in making sure grants went to groups that needed them most, Janine Peterson suddenly became a dislocated worker herself. Peterson looks at Ryan’s proposals for Medicare and Medicaid and thinks about how they would touch the newly poor people of Janesville and the groups trying to help them. “It’s going to put a greater burden on the social services agencies, so they are going to have to raise more money because they already have people waiting in line,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Amid the giddiness of this past week, amid the uneasiness over what could happen, something else is emerging in Janesville: a hope that the spotlight on a possible vice president’s home town just might be good for its economy. Stan Milam, a former managing editor of the Janesville Gazette who is back there now as a reporter, has been listening to the coffee shop talk. “Now people are saying: ‘Maybe he could convince General Motors to reopen the plant. If you are the vice president, why can’t you whisper in the president’s ear: It would be nice if people in my home town could go back to work.’ ”
Amy Goldstein, a reporter on The Washington Post’s national staff, is on leave as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is exploring the effects of long-term unemployment on people and the place where they live.