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Americans caught in Great Recession undertow

In the official estimation of government economists, the Great Recession ended in 2009. But in Barbara Garson’s new book, it lives on. And for the people whose stories she tells, the Great Recession may never die.

“They didn’t retire, and they didn’t find jobs,” Garson writes, describing the four New York professionals whose stories open “Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession.” They call themselves “The Pink Slip Club.” It’s a group that never loses any members, because no one ever lands permanent, full-time work.

“Down the Up Escalator” is best read as a kind of travelogue through a beaten-down but-not-broken United States. Garson is the author of three previous books about real people and economics. She’s witnessed and written about downturns past. Her tour of the recession that’s earned the label “Great” begins in Manhattan and takes her to the Midwest, California and many other places.

When she arrives in Indiana, she finds people living with uncertainty, even when they have jobs. There is “Chuck Kenny,” a fiftysomething warehouse supervisor in Evansville, Ind., who works for a big-box retailer she calls Big Box. (Most of the personal and company names have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity).

Having seen so many others lose their jobs, and with restructuring constantly looming at his company, Chuck knows his own job is hanging by a thread. And Chuck’s college-educated adult son, Michael, can see that his own life will likely be less comfortable than that of his father.
Kirk McKoy illustration of U.S. flag made out of pennies. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Kirk McKoy illustration of U.S. flag made out of pennies. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

“Michael was born on the down escalator,” Garson writes. “Since childhood he’d watched his parents running to stay in place.” His mother still has her job, despite a corporate takeover and downsizing, but “she now supervises more people and works longer hours for the same money.”

“Down the Up Escalator” is an engaging, insightful account of the changes that have swept through an America where good, hard-working people are learning to make do with less money, less opportunity and less free time. It’s not quite as successful or original as a work of economic analysis ― the book’s central conclusion can be summarized in four words: “The rich get richer.”

Garson interviews call-center operators, boutique saleswomen and mortgage brokers. To all she is a generous, open-minded listener. And “Down the Up Escalator” is most noteworthy as a record of Americans’ emotional reactions to the new economic truths, including the feeling that it isn’t our right to get rich easy; and the realization that justice and fairness are not necessarily hard-wired into the American economy.

As for the younger American generation: Garson suggests living with less is easier for them, because they don’t know any other reality.

Garson came of age in the ‘60s. Now she sees a hippie ethos taking root in the generation that came to adulthood in the Great Recession. Chuck’s son Michael keeps his 10-year-old dreadlocks rather than shaving them off, even though it makes him less employable. “My energy is carried in my hair,” he says. He spent a year out of work and shows little interest in jumping on the treadmill required to keep up a middle-class lifestyle.

“They don’t have the option of well-paying, steady jobs,” Garson writes of Michael and his generation. “But they do have the option of not feeling bad about that.”

A willingness to portray the complexity of Americans’ personal responses to macroeconomic disaster helps make Garson’s book a lively read, despite its grim subject matter. So many books that treat the subject of economic restructuring portray working Americans as hapless victims. Garson is too sharp an observer, and too honest a writer, to do that.

The four unemployed, single New Yorkers she meets at the beginning of her journey are rarely maudlin, despite having endured the politely cruel ceremonies by which U.S. companies lay off people. They use all sorts of creative strategies to keep their spirits up, including attending a “prosperity ritual” led by a witch in Central Park.

Ina Bromberg once made a killing as a sales associate at a company Garson calls “Boutique” on Madison Avenue. Now Ina’s hours and commissions have been cut. But the executives at Boutique “haven’t stopped hiring people,” she tells Garson. The Great Recession is an opportunity for the business to get more workers for less pay.

Garson notes, again and again, the way employers and financiers benefit and profit from recessions. Each downturn, she illustrates persuasively, ends with a bit more American wealth shifted upward.

Only one of Garson’s subjects suggests a radical solution, saying that one day people might “storm the White House” in anger. Most simply accept their new realities and adapt. They decide, for instance, to have one less child. Or they take jobs they never imagined doing, like Tracy, a woman with a law degree who finds herself doing construction work.

“How many more recessions and jobless recoveries can we cycle through?” Garson asks near the end of “Down the Up Escalator.” “How many times can we emerge with the rich richer, the poor poorer ...?”

Garson knows these are questions she can’t answer. Instead, her lucid book makes it clear that with each new crisis the American people will survive by digging deeper into their supplies of creativity, courage and humor.

By Hector Tobar

(Los Angeles Times)

(MCT Information Services)