An essay inspired by Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story (2017, Simon and Schuster). What this account of economic decline and increasing social polarization in a post-industrial American town reveals about the limitations of local household and community coping strategies and the failures of government safety nets.
At the June, 2018 annual conference of the Association for Study of Food in Society (ASFS) and Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) in Madison, Wisconsin, some number of us SAFN members participated in an open forum on the 2018 Farm Bill and also took the opportunity to learn more about the history of the food movement in Wisconsin.
When I proposed this session, I hoped to involve food and nutrition anthropologists and other professionals in run-up and follow-up conversations, sharing information about how these professionals participated in Farm Bill related research, education, and outreach, including advocacy activities. The round-table session would focus attention on the hot-button issues in the Farm Bill 2018 news, which from January through June included cut-backs and structural changes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), reductions in conservation agriculture and community-food security initiatives that threatened to derail promising programs in urban agriculture and grants to support new farmers and ranchers, discussions of crop insurance and who should be able to collect benefits payments (only actual farmers or also non-farming family members), and overall discussion of environmental protection agendas, including permissible pesticides, organic regulations, and payments to users to encourage conservation practices. The goals of this open forum were practical as well as research and policy oriented: to learn what ag/food/nutritional professionals were doing (and observing) with regard to the Farm Bill, and to learn what information and outreach formats work best to engage populations of farmers and non-farmers, including students and university faculty and administrators, to influence politicians responsible for the final form of this multi-faceted, “omnibus” legislation. Finally, a question that cross-cut this Farm Bill and other food-movement discussions, concerned what are the most promising platforms for sharing information and perspectives, to generate ongoing exchanges of information.
At present (mid-July 2018), the final form of the 2018 Farm Bill awaits reconciliation of House and Senate versions that have now passed their respective chambers. A key sticking point are major eligibility and funding-level changes to SNAP, the most important US government program protecting people from hunger. At our Open Forum, colleagues shared various and sometimes contentious points of view they had witnessed among particular rural and urban populations regarding such government food programs. Particularly in the midwest heartland, some of these professionals found considerable push-back against government income transfers targeted for food. Some of these hardworking folks (the particular example involved farmers) indicated they expected everyone to work harder and not have to rely on government-sponsored food entitlements at taxpayer expense. For strong supporters of SNAP food-security benefits, including myself, these ethnographic observations were troubling, and revealed how much we who champion SNAP don’t know about the thinking or situations of opponents. We read the household-level economic and nutritional studies and are confident that significant benefits are present and assume such results, in some sense, speak for themselves. This situation, combined with a growing awareness of Wisconsin’s recent history, which showed Wisconsin state government and national electoral politics had shifted from “blue” to “red” raised the question: why do people vote against their own interests, and the well-being and future of their state, by reducing public spending for basic quality education and health care, which inevitably disadvantages everyone who has much to lose from an undereducated, underemployed work force that is also likely to be more sickly and threaten the public health of everyone?
As I pondered these questions, I looked for recent books and found two very recent publications on Wisconsin society and politics. One was Amy Goldstein’s Janesville. An American Story (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Sometimes a book outside food and nutritional anthropology’s immediate, specialized area of interest provides important insights into science and policy issues that may be missing in studies that ostensibly more directly engage our targeted professional interests. Janesville proved to be a case in point. Although its evidence extended only through 2016, it offered a context to discuss proposed changes to USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”), in the 2018 Farm Bill, which US legislators still hope to finalize by 30 September 2018 when the 2014 Farm Bill expires.
As we found out from participants in our Open Forum, most Americans don’t follow the specifics of this enormous (“omnibus”) piece of agriculture, food, and nutrition legislation. Nor do they realize that close to 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s roughly $800 billion expenditures go to food and nutrition programs, the largest of which is SNAP.
SNAP, as we food professionals know, is the most important US food-security program, an income transfer program targeted toward improving low income household access to food, which expands and contracts according to expansion and contraction of employment and incomes. The most recent SNAP participation figures, which the government tracks monthly, yearly, and state by state, indicate an estimated 41,240,974 Americans, living in 20,467,521 households, relied in part on SNAP benefits to put food on their tables because their existing income did not suffice. Average benefits per person were $126.76 per month or $255.41 per household. That said, numbers of participants have steadily declined year by year since 2015, when more then 45 million Americans accessed SNAP in what was then a lower-employment and lower-wage environment, although average monthly benefits remained relatively unchanged.
Key proposed changes in the House Farm bill, which passed in late June, are reductions in overall eligibility and benefits, additional bureaucratic burdens of monthly recertifications, and mandatory work requirements for all able-bodied adults. These specifics, including financial and social welfare analyses that demonstrate these changes will increase food-insecurity among those eligible and newly ineligible, can be found on the updated Center for Budget and Policy Priorities website. Instead, consistent with David Himmelgreen’s well-reasoned “In Focus” essay on hunger, which used anthropology to put a human face on hunger numbers, I use Amy Goldstein’s Janesville interviews, which tracked individual and family histories from the great recession of 2008 for five years through 2013 (with brief “epilogue” updates through 2016), as a kind of ethnography, to examine the implications of changing US Food Policy.
This book tells a distressing story, a case study showing how post-industrial American cities have fared in situations where their well-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Janesville, Wisconsin was a General Motors town. Most of the residents, male and female, worked for the automotive company directly, in their assembly lines, or indirectly, producing parts (e.g., Lear engines), accessories, or services that went into the finished vehicles or provisioned laborers and their families. Some worked, alternatively, at the other signature employer, Parker Pen, which also ceased operations during the period of study (2008-2013).
The chapters, arranged by years, tell the story of the town institutions, politics, and people forced to adapt to these deteriorating economic times. Each year’s framings also include political anecdotes showcasing the most characteristic stances of leading politicians. These politicians included Barack Obama, who was elected twice over this period, and attracted heartfelt support in this largely Democratic, union (UAW) town. His stirring promises and commitment to the American automobile industry as an icon of American culture and economy, proved to be largely empty, despite costly federal government bail-outs, which seem to have fattened management and investors, not the workers, who were out of jobs.
The other major political figure was Paul Ryan, descendant of a wealthy Irish “mafia” (a local term taken directly from interviews in the book), who represented the upper class in this increasingly polarized community. Ascending to Republican leadership positions in Washington, Ryan voted to cut budgets and benefits alongside his fellow Republicans, including Governor Scott Walker, who somehow managed to get elected multiple times and defeat a grassroots effort to impeach (recall) him. Why? The reader never quite learns the answer to this conundrum, which saw the state of Wisconsin withdraw healing or life-sustaining health and education funds at exactly the point where they were most needed.
The book begins with some background on Janesville, which had a long and illustrious history of hard working, civic minded people, who took care of their own, and avoided the violence that sometimes erupted in other union towns fighting for labor rights against management. The general public and union at first assumed they would weather this shut-down as well, but as weeks and months became years of unemployment, the return of high paying jobs became increasingly unlikely, and people had to find other routes to livelihoods—or lose their houses (many were foreclosed), other major equipment (repossessed—although there was not much discussion of this), or move to where there might be better prospects (a handful of men commuted to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they (nicknamed “gypsies”) worked at the GM plant from Monday morning until Friday evening, then drove back to spend weekends with their families in Janesville.
The narrative is constructed out of household and individual life histories, which detail the disruptions in the lives of four autoworkers’ families; two workers from other local industries (which also shut down), two local politicians (Paul Ryan and Tim Cullen, former and Future Democratic state senator, who tried to negotiate across the growing economic chasm). There were also three educators, whose efforts to protect homeless students left behind by struggling families, a social studies teacher at the local high school, who created a Closet to provide emergency supplies for students lacking food and sundries for minimally decent and dignified lives because their households’ economies had collapsed. Two business leaders, who don’t seem to have accomplished very much for the vast majority of those down on their luck, grew in privileged status—self-described “optimists” who distanced themselves from misfortune and unfortunates. Additionally, there were two community leaders who reported on economic situations and tried to bring attention to possible solutions.
Food and Nutrition Implications
For me, a food and nutrition anthropologist, the most evocative vignettes were the descriptions of multi-generational households struggling to put food on the table, once the major wage earners had lost their factory jobs. In these situations, all able-bodied adults and responsible teenagers who worked two or three jobs per person in order to maintain the human dignity and nutritional well-being of their households. The workers included highly motivated high school kids, whose contributions to household budgets were significant enough to keep families from penury and more extreme food insecurity, but also prevented these households from qualifying for higher SNAP benefits and the college-bound kids themselves from needs-based scholarships.
Households without regular incomes cobbled together food provisions from minimal earnings, savings, and emergency sources, which included a high school emergency “closet,” established by concerned teachers, that contained essential food and sundries the kids otherwise lacked. Over this period, various local charities, including food pantries and food banks, distributed what emergency food provisions they had and solicited more, but saw their financial resources cut back by what they interpreted to be mean spirited government, especially at the state level. These sections vividly testify to the limits of customary charitable networks, especially where most workers have lost primary sources of income that they have been unable to replace. Traditionally generous local Christmas and other holiday food efforts continued but had to be scaled back. A community where large numbers were unemployed or had suffered big cuts to wages, saw increasing numbers of people with unmet needs in a context of decreasing contributions.
Social and Moral Dimensions
The adults’ struggles to find jobs, provision their families, and put food on the table with dignity—as their roles changed from “givers” to “receivers” of charity are forcefully epitomized in these very human stories, short biographies of hard-working and loving families, coping with economic crisis and family disasters through no fault of their own. For me, the most important findings came at the end of the narrative, which documented the growing bifurcation of what had been a resilient, middle class town, which over a very short time divided into a two class town that separated rich from poor, with the faltering lower class seeing no prospects for regaining their prior middle class life style and culture.
The other major insights were reported in two appendices. The first, a 2013 survey of household economies in Rock County before and after the recession, showed deep cutbacks in quality of life alongside a reluctance to ask government for greater assistance. This may have been partly cultural but also suggests a deep distrust of government capacity to improve their situations. Contrary to government officials, most thought the country was still in recession. Specifically, over one third of households had lost jobs, three quarters of the households had experienced a significant decrease in home values (a consequence of the separate but related mortgage and real estate crisis). For those who had found another job, more than half were earning less than before. Only 3-5% responded that they thought Janesville would recover to the financial and job security they had enjoyed prior to the crisis. At least half expressed difficulty at some point in paying for adequate food, and more than half had had to cut back on health care and other necessities. Many acknowledged symptoms of anxiety and depression. But only about a third overall thought that government should be doing more to help people who were out of work (more out of work favored greater government assistance than those who had not lost jobs).
The second survey, which examined the impact of local community college job training programs, revealed that these job-training programs, which encouraged many workers to go back to school and retool for other jobs, did not put them at an advantage over those who did not access job training. About 10 percent more of the re-employed workers had found employment without enrolling in community-college training. Those who had not gone back to school also appeared to have steadier work and to be earning more. Local jobs that would have enabled the retrained group to put their new skills to work, at least in the immediate term, were not there.
Such findings bode ill for job training programs that are supposed to put SNAP or other beneficiaries of public food and nutrition programs to work, to earn living wages so they will not have to rely on government assistance. They also suggest an urgent task for everyone who cares about reductions in food insecurity. It is time to go out to such heartlands, and listen to what people are thinking and doing, and find ways to emphasize the “jobs” connections to food programs, which otherwise will continue to founder through misunderstanding, resistance, and lack of support for entitlements.