Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession

“Something bad has been creeping up the occupational ladder,” warns Barbara Garson, author of Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession. The author sees a broad transformation happening, and through her interviews with average Americans, is able to help us see the Great Recession as a culmination of decades of deregulation and rampant exploitation of the workforce. Documenting people’s woes of lost jobs, decreasing equity of homes, and vanished savings, the collection of her shocking tales can only lead readers to one conclusion: this failing system has left struggling Americans worse off than ever.

It used to be that a single working-class man could earn enough money to support his family and then some, Garson reminds readers. This, as she reveals, has become less and less true over the last 40 years; wages have stagnated or declined, and corporate profits and the income of the top 1% of Americans are up substantially. Moreover, in the wake of the recent recession, the wealth gap in America has continued to increase as employers find new and, as one wealthy hedge fund researcher put it, “innovative” ways to get more for less.

Garson spoke with one high-end clothing retail saleswoman whose income was cut by 75% and who is at risk of losing all her benefits as the store switches over to an entirely part-time sales team. Another man, fighting to retain his job after 24 years with the company, is forced to work nightshifts for 52+ hours a week without overtime pay. Others the author interviewed, despite being college-educated and having work experience, found receiving unemployment checks a better alternative to finding a job that paid them little more than the government. These are all people who want to work, who derive great satisfaction from their own personal successes, and who all feel their “personal stagnation rests on personal limitations or mistakes,” as Garson explains.

Yet this attitude, the belief that Americans who work hard and continually improve their knowledge and skills will achieve financial security, is an illusion in today’s economy. What Garson sees is a system where, as wages continue to stagnate or decline, increasingly the majority of Americans cannot afford the products and services they produce. With the financialization of our economy years ago, buyers’ real capital has been completely disregarded; anyone who couldn’t pay could simply borrow, and thus finance industries have mushroomed to supply the needed funds to fill the ever-increasing wage deficiency. “You couldn’t miss the Ponzi-ish smell,” says Garson, though she admits not having the foresight to predict the ultimate lending scheme: the bundling and selling of risky mortgages to duped investors. This deadly gamble, the root of a global economic collapse, represents the corruption of “a system to support the real economy—companies, job creation, wealth creation in this country—to a system that was money making money, financial engineering alone, to the great detriment of the country,” Garson quotes Phil Angelides, chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

With mortgages underwater and investors taking huge loses, many Americans were left with few options. The author spoke with some who walked away from their homes and their debt in the wake of the housing market crash and others who fought with banks to reduce their negative equity. Some were able to hold on to their homes, but many were forced out. Regardless of the outcome, one thing remained true for all: the human toll was devastating. From a former realtor reduced to living in a trailer, to a wealthy talk-show host left with $200 to his name and an $8,000 credit card debt, to a husband suffering from PTSD after spending two years fighting to save his treasured home, the author’s findings range from bizarre to horrifying.

As if this weren’t heinous enough, Garson predicts that these all-time lows are becoming the new standard for the bottom 99% of Americans. The “L-shaped” recovery, as she calls it, is a distortion of the normal V-shaped, rebounding recovery that we normally see after a decline. Not only does the economy pick back up, but usually, Garson informs readers, wealth is distributed more evenly after a recovery. This is not true for this recession. The individual accounts documented in Down the Up Escalator illustrate how, after many Americans received sizable cuts in salary or lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in home equity and savings, a failure to “bail out” those who lost most has resulted in their diminished situation becoming the new status quo. Garson implores readers to realize the severity of the situation and recognize that this continued subjection cannot go on.

Blair Dudik is interested in international development and politics. His work in global health and Peace Corps service have given him a unique perspective on civil justice and role of the government to protect citizens’ inalienable rights.

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