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

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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