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'Down the Up Escalator' Author Barbara Garson On How the 99% Live in the Great Recession

Receiving a pink slip at work

Layoff notices may not come via pink slips much these days, but the message remains the same. — Corbis

To say that Barbara Garson has led an interesting life is to sell her short, but then, the 71-year-old investigative dynamo is only 4'11".

After being arrested with Mario Savio and 800 others during Berkeley's Free Speech movement in 1964, Garson spent 10 days at the Santa Rita prison farm.

From 1970 to 1972, she worked at an antiwar coffee shop in Tacoma, Wash.

By then, her anti-war satire MacBird! had sold more than 500,000 copies and had opened as a play in New York. Garson would go on to write four more plays. One of them, The Dinosaur Door, earned her an Obie Award in 1977. She hasn't stopped since.

Every dozen years or so, she churns out another book on the plight of working Americans. Her latest, Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, explores how Americans are coping with the erosion of jobs, homes and savings.

We caught up with Garson by phone in her rent-controlled Manhattan apartment.

Author Barbara Garson

Author Barbara Garson — Courtesy Frank Leonardo/Doubleday

AARP: "Between 1971 and 2007," you write, "U.S. productivity increased by 99 percent ... [while] hourly wages rose by 4 percent." Why is that?

Barbara Garson: It started with outsourcing and offshoring. Then, firing the air-traffic controllers [in 1981] was a signal that it's time to break the unions. Plus the mere fact of jobs disappearing tends to lower wages. It increases competition for the jobs that are left. During the latest recession, rather than settling for shorter hours until the recession was over, for example, the clothing store employees I interviewed have had to accept 4.5-hour shifts as the new norm. And they've had to kiss their benefits goodbye. This is a national crisis.

AARP: Are things that bad all over?

BG: Well, employers are trying to beat down wages any way they can, and I think that's really sad. In the U.S., where 70 percent of what we produce we sell to each other, it's also a way to run out of consumers, but fast.

AARP: "Starting around the mid-1970s," you write, "the wealth gap widened while hourly wages stagnated or declined." Why do you think that happened?

BG: I'm no economist, but I think that when foreign competition stiffened in the 1970s, absolute return on capital declined, and going abroad was the solution to that. The lessons of the 1930s had been forgotten, and there was a strong drive to curb the power of unions.

We '60s activists were certain we could make the world better. But I have written three books now about the lives of American working people. Not only did things not improve for the factory workers I wrote about in my first book, but the stress and indignities they faced at work have been moving up the occupational ladder. White-collar and professional workers have quotas that are constantly being raised, and more and more they are being hired as hourly workers without benefits or security.

I was brought up believing in progress — you know, diseases get cured, each generation does a little better, just how short will the workweek get? I never dreamed I'd live to write about things getting worse.

AARP: Some five years ago when the housing bubble burst, it left more than one-third of California mortgages under water, you write in Down the Up Escalator. You say that two decades of living in that bubble had led people to a different way of thinking about home and debt — different in what way?

BG: So many people in California got swept into the bubble of thinking about their house as an investment. Bibi San Antonio, the mortgage-loan broker I met in Burbank, was in the same house-flipping scheme that she was selling to customers. A lot of people I met in California were planning to profit from their homes, even if it meant they had to move every couple of years.

Down the Up Escalator by Barbara Garson

"Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession" by Barbara Garson. — Courtesy Doubleday

AARP: At one point in the book you're in an airport waiting area when you mention the housing crash, and passengers all around you pipe up with their stories. Did that surprise you?

BG: All I did was strike up a casual conversation with a fellow traveler, but when the people around us overheard what we were talking about, they couldn't wait to chime in with their own stories. This speculative fever had infected everybody, because people had seen their house prices shoot up; their homes had become assets that they were taking money out of.

AARP: There's a wrenching moment in your book where you're trying to console a 60-year-old home health aide being evicted from her house in Richmond, Calif. You burst into tears because, you write, "my books never do anyone any good." Do you still feel that way?

BG: As a lifelong activist, I feel a sense of guilt about it. I mean, what have I done about the decline that's going on around me? A friend of mine read the book and told me she's grateful for what it taught her about her children. She had been [silently] condemning them for having so much debt at this stage of their lives; in her eyes they were irresponsible, failed yuppies, and she could not understand why. "But now I really understand how the deck is stacked against them," she told me.

AARP: Some of the best passages in the book are those in which you explore the intersection between personal finance and morality.

BG: Bibi San Antonio, that mortgage broker I interviewed in Burbank, felt a sense of obligation to call up her former clients and tell them they'd be fools to keep paying a $200,000 mortgage on a house now worth $70,000. If you want to live, she told them, walk away from it now. In the Great Recession, sneaking away from a mortgaged house was no longer something only a shameless scofflaw would contemplate.

AARP: Has the Great Recession hit older people harder?

BG: For older folks who get laid off, things sure are worse. Take those four single friends who called themselves "The Pink Slip Club," for example. They had banded together to keep each other's spirits up as they sent in thousands of applications and never heard a peep in reply. I've known so many older people who are just trying to find out a phone extension at a company they believe is hiring, because you never hear back from online ads.

There is just such frustration and humiliation at starting over again that's compounded when no one will give you an answer after you apply for something. The only ones I know who take it well are those who can say, "I don't care what kind of work I do."

Allan Fallow is a writer and editor for AARP Media.

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