Book Reviews: Janesville and Hand To Mouth

financial struggles

In an effort to understand financial struggles, I read two non-fiction works: Janesville: An American Story (Amy Goldstein) and Hand To Mouth (Linda Tirado).



Janesville is an account of the economic adjustments that occurred subsequent to the closing of the local Janesville, Wisconsin, GM plant.  The book documents the shakeout of the newly-unemployed individuals that relied on their financial livelihood from the assembly plant.  To earn their living and raise their families, generations of workers banked on GM employment as a default.  When GM closed down the Janesville assembly plant, it disrupted the economic environment, leaving GM workers, and workers of supporting businesses, without employment.

In the opening sentence, I say economic “adjustments” because I see it as a shift in the economic landscape.  However, the author writes the report weighing heavily on the financial struggles of the former GM-ers.  Surely, a large employer attracts the local population and becomes the basis of the community’s economic status.  However, the author steers the account into the pity aspect of the featured families and attaches a negative slant to every attribute of their lives.  Even the positive points are tainted with sorrow and connected to the GM decision.

financial difficulty

In Hand to Mouth, author Linda Tirado has the intention of enlightening the “rich” of what a poor person’s life is like.  I hoped to gain a perspective that I previously lacked.  Maybe there was something that I truly didn’t understand.  The author explains that she’s in a cycle of constant low-paying jobs, robbed not only of dignity but hope, rest, and options.  She ended up that way partly from her own decisions, and from her take, bad luck.

Janesville workers needed to find alternatives and some retrained for new jobs, but quickly became dissatisfied and depressed.  Workers that accepted jobs in the next city became known as Janesville gypsies, living near their employer and driving home on the weekends to be with their families.

Politicians were desperate to right the ship.  Paul Ryan is a main character in the Janesville story and he knows the hardship that will ravage the community.  He suggests that GM produce a small vehicle in the local factory instead of abandoning the vicinity.  The small vehicle went to another factory, leaving Janesville empty.

The re-settling of Janesville locals happens in fits and starts. The community pulls together the best it can as families adjust to shrunken paychecks and downsizing.  Teenage homelessness and suicides occur.  The author successfully demonstrates the fallout of a community that follows after the headline is forgotten.

My Take-Away


My belief is that everyone, except those that are mentally or physically disabled, should be self-sustaining.  Therefore, I take issue with some of the hardships presented.

Disappointingly, after reading only 20% of Hand to Mouth, I started to get offended.  The author so strongly expresses hatred toward people with job benefits that it was offensiveness.  Her dental problems are described in their own chapter, a rant that knows no boundaries.  It sounded like a guilting of epic proportions on those that have teeth.

Downward mobility is the term for able-bodied individuals that become derailed and fall into the ravine of deficit.  She purports that poverty is a potential outcome for all of us.  I believe that – to an extent. Even decently paid workers are not a far drop from hardship.  These are the paycheck-to-paycheck families. However, I am of the notion that with good decisions and self-control, indigence can be avoided by finding alternatives and moving forward, not backward.

What Doesn’t Apply To Poor People Only

Ms. Tirado considers ‘rich’ as having anything left over after the bare basics are covered.  I had a bit of an issue with her perception of people in well-paid jobs, as if life’s inconveniences are reserved only for the poor.  She repeatedly implies that well-paid people are exempt from being treated poorly on the job or never work long hours.

I’ve worked such long hours that I didn’t see the light of day for an entire summer and I shouldn’t have to apologize for having a dental plan.  With that, I can remember being apprehensive to take a day off to go to a doctor.  I was afraid to fall behind in my work or miss out on a meeting.  Someone would have something negative to say about me missing a day.

She complains of all the trouble in having to look for a job.  How does she think anyone else was hired?  Employers don’t bang doors down when they need to hire.  People come to them and have to prove that they’ve got something to offer.  It’s rare for people to be chased down.

Everyone that I know, all gainfully employed, has something to lose.  In my experience, those that she describes as ‘rich’ have worked for what they have, and have sacrificed plenty.  I’ve seen that first-hand, from watching hard-working accountants in their early years work long, demanding hours to seeing a high-net worth client travel the world extensively to fulfill his position.

In the places I’ve worked, the managerial messages were far from motivational. Most of my job settings were full of contempt, disdain, and condescension.  No one promised me promotions or raises or even the hope of a promotion.  If I believed what anyone told me, I would have given up and settled for the minimum-wage hamster wheel of life. I decided that I was good enough, period, and when I wasn’t given a promotion, I promoted myself (translation: I got a higher-paying job).

Why didn’t Ms.Tirado consider a government job?  A government job offers many benefits and decent working hours.  Anyone that sets themselves up to scrape out a living on a fast-food joint salary has shimmied under the limbo bar without the flexibility to right themselves.  That backward position is where they’ll stay until they find the way up.

financial hope

I can agree with some points.  As an entry-level accountant, I remember being paid next to nothing and constantly reminded that I wasn’t important – until I wanted to take a day off.  Then, you’d think that the company would crumble in the hours I was away.  They required a phone number and wanted to know where I was going.  Every day was more emotionally punishing than the day before.

The key is to garner the benefits of the work experience.  As time goes by, you gain experience, expand your skills, and start moving up.  Then, the soul-crushing starts to lighten.  To get there requires individual effort. No one improves or gets promoted without demonstrating some sort of work ethic.

Upward mobility can be accomplished.  I watch “Blue-Collar Millionaires” on CNBC and am amazed at what ordinary people can accomplish.  One young man built a custom-car business and a successful car magazine while admitting that he knew nothing about the magazine business and couldn’t read all that well.  His business is worth $30 million dollars.

It Wasn’t All GM’s Fault

Janesville’s author recounts the suicidal demise of someone considered a beacon of hope, someone that transitioned to full employment after the job fallout.  She armed herself with new skills and became a correctional officer.  Soon after, her personal life fell apart.  Her marriage was suffering and her son returned home from Iraq with PTSD.   She began an affair with a prisoner, smuggling illegal substances and food to her caged lover.  Before she was to be likely sentenced to a jail term, she took her life via a pill overdose.

It’s a shame that her marriage couldn’t withstand the disjointed job schedules, but her son’s condition did not result from her job loss.  And, if she refrained from a work-related love connection, she wouldn’t have been on the verge of prosecution.  Maybe I missed the boat on this point, but GM was not to blame for all of this.

In the case of the GM plant closure, many workers, in their new working environments had to transcend from welcoming job conditions into an unchartered, stoic environment.  Their previous work environments had a familial-feel, with warm-fuzzy co-workers and birthday cakes and employers showed concern for their well-being.  Not so much at their new place of employment.  That kind of adjustment requires big-boy and big-girl panties and many could not overcome the transition.

As for the gypsies, employment transplants are never easy, but sometimes life requires inconvenience.

Job Losses

I see some similarities with the GM employees and Enron employees.  Both groups painted themselves into corners by keeping their options narrow.  For the GM-ers, it was their employment options. For the Enron-ers, it was their investment choices. When Enron disappeared, their accumulated wealth, invested heavily in the company stock, disappeared with it.  Equally disturbing is that the GM-ers attitudes became as linear as the assembly line.  This is evidenced by the reluctance to train for new skills and dropping out of an education program because they weren’t allowed to submit hand-written reports. Judging by the way they handled change, they should have been handed a copy of ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ on the way out. If I remember correctly, I had to learn how to type (on a typewriter) to submit my college work.

2008 was the year of corporate mergers and downsizing.  Ten years of my career was at Bear Stearns and most of my colleagues worked there over ten years.  When the company was acquired by JP Morgan, the winning management cherry-picked the employees that they wanted.  Employees not selected had to find new employment.  Other financial services firms became Bear Stearns refugee camps with Bear Stearns gypsies.

I lost my job in 2008 too.  I went from a stressful job that I loved into a stressful job that I hated.  Job rebound isn’t typically employment heaven.  You need a job and take what’s offered.  Like others that experienced the same situation, I stayed less than one year.  If I check the LinkedIn summaries of many colleagues, they spent only one year at their new employer following a job dismissal.  Ultimately, I accepted a lower-paying, stable job with job security and loads of benefits.

I also know what it’s like to not have money.  My parents divorced when I was a teenager and both decided that they didn’t want to help pay for college.  My sister moved out on her own and struggled before her career settled.  People still make fun of her for not buying anything unless she has a coupon.  I drove my car with no brakes because I didn’t want to hear my mother scream at me if I asked for money to get new brake pads.  My mother was employed but wouldn’t help me pay for anything.  It was as if they thought school was free.

Money Doesn’t Solve All Problems

Ms. Tirado describes an obstacle for everything, job searching, medical care, basic life skills.

For someone that purports to be intelligent, I didn’t see a hint of her finding her way out of her mess.  In between the sarcasm, I sensed a level of irresponsibility while she simultaneously asserted her intellect. The lack of responsibility is telling in her discovery of being pregnant.  After seven positive home-pregnancy tests, she refused to believe the results.  Then delayed her prenatal health care because of work conflicts.  After reading that, I had trouble with her credibility.

At some point, you have to help yourself – not blame everyone else for inadequate services.  The level of service is typically commensurate with the amount of payment.  When you pay nothing, the service is not going to be top-notch.  However, even when paying top dollar, administration for anything, especially medical-related, can be confusing and disjointed.  I think we’ve all been there.  When I initiated my Health Savings Account, it required months and months of phone calls to process my claims and to figure out how it all worked.

Ms. Tirado implies that poor health is only reserved for lower-paid individuals.  Reality is, people in well-paying jobs suffer from allergies, headaches, and chronic illnesses just the same.  Because of workplace stressors, they typically have problems taking time off to see doctors.

In Janesville, the bold effort of the local leaders to maintain economic stability is noble but, maybe because I learned at a fairly young age that no one gives a rat’s ass about me, being employed is ultimately my concern, not anyone else’s.  I’m trying not to be stoic here, but people have to make decisions every day.  Living within commuting distance of New York City was a conscious decision on my part, not an accident.  When I could have lived anywhere, I chose to stay close enough to the city to have a reasonable commute. Call me crazy, but that’s where the jobs are.

Ms. Tirado achieved her goal of proving how miserable her life is.  Somehow I sense that having more money may not make her issues disappear.


Innovation and Productivity

Things change, thanks heavens, and people must keep up. Just as the manufacturers of buggy whips lost their livelihood when autos replaced horses, and the icemen lost their vocation after refrigerators were invented, the employees that assembled a has-been sport-utility vehicle were left to find another purpose.

Innovation must occur for society to advance.  I loved this piece by Warren Buffett as he explains the benefits of innovation and productivity.

financial neighborhood

Moving On To A New Financial Neighborhood

My favorite financial psychologist, Dr. Brad Klontz, categorized a certain frame of mind called the “financial neighborhood”.  Each person lives in their financial neighborhood, where they relate to the people, economic status, and lifestyle of their surroundings.  The upper and lower boundaries set their personal tolerance limits.  For example, someone that falls out of the middle class will scratch and claw their way back into the middle class because it’s their financial neighborhood, where their mental life is established.  They will stop at nothing to avoid a fall into a lower socio-economic status.  Similarly, if they get catapulted into an upper layer of wealth, it’s possible that they will sabotage their situation, remaining where they were.

The financial neighborhood of the individuals in both of these books was deeply embedded in their psyches.  So deeply embedded that they remained stuck and unable to break away from their patterns.


I’m not dismissing or knocking anyone’s money stress.  I’m only suggesting that there are always alternatives.  The shifting may feel like a square peg feels in a round hole, but the more flexible the individual, the smoother the transition.  No one wins by ignoring problems or remaining stagnant.  There’s always hope for an equal or better path.  Sometimes life doesn’t deliver everything at your doorstep, it requires getting, but it’s there for those who go for it.

Related Posts: Self-Evaluating Your Financial Behavior, Part I

Self-Evaluating Your Financial Behavior, Part II

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *