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Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Garson tells the stories of Americans who have lost jobs – and hope – during the Great Recession.

By David Hugh Smith / April 26, 2013

Down the Up Escalator By Barbara Garson Knopf Doubleday 288 pp.

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The generation that went to Woodstock, fought with police against the Vietnam War, and later, enjoyed a "me" decade – the "Baby Boomer" generation – has taken part in transforming our economy into a system that many regard as genuinely hostile to "the people."

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Now a participant in 1960s social activism has written a book showing in sharp relief the impact of decades of downsizing and outsourcing on families and on some of the good-paying jobs that once sustained the American middle class. 

Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession is a three-part opus in which Barbara Garson befriends and tells the stories of people who can't find work, people who are losing their homes, and people whose savings have evaporated.

Amid this contemporary Brothers Grimm collection are Garson's savvy views on how chunks of America ended up on a down escalator. She comments, "[U]nlike the Great Depression, the Great Recession didn't narrow the wealth gap.... For all our bruises we merely went into a deep pothole and emerged on the same rough and dangerous road."

Many of Garson's stories are heartbreaking. She tells of Alice Epps from California. When the interest on her adjustable-rate mortgage rose to 17 percent and then her son was murdered, she got behind on payments. Her herculean efforts to arrange a loan modification, and the thousands she paid in fees, did virtually nothing to reduce her debt or enable her to keep her home.

Some may disagree with Garson's view that too much capital has been invested in buying out competing companies, in real estate speculation, and in other schemes that do nothing to create new businesses and jobs to replace the well-paid ones lost in manufacturing and other business sectors. Others might take issue with her statistics, which often come from sources with a strong liberal bias. But there is no arguing with what's happened to millions of people who, during an earlier era, would be thriving, not struggling to survive.

And Garson is the perfect person to write a book about economic injustice. Since the '60s, she has been reporting on and advocating for populist issues. She played a key role in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and she's written three other books on work and our financial system.

"Down the Up Escalator" starts with the stories of four funky New Yorkers she calls the "Pink Slip Club."  Garson describes the frustrations and indignities these professionals suffer looking for work after losing their jobs early in the recession. Garson keeps track of them for several years as they all fail to win back mid-level white-color positions.

Elaine, who'd worked in accounts payable for a broadcasting conglomerate, eventually starts to fantasize about scoring some hours helping in a hole-in-the-wall shop that converts records to CDs. Gerri, who had been an insurance adjuster, experiences similar disappointments, and becomes increasingly anxious as expenses bite chunks out of her shrinking savings. (Garson named these members of the Pink Slip Club after two of the main characters from the Seinfeld TV series.)

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