Down The Up Escalator – How the 99% Live in the Great Recession. Doubleday 2013

Reviewed by Barbara Chacour

If you suspect that “generalizations are always wrong,” you will love this stereotype-bending book recounting the economic problems of a cross section of Americans. The energetic author gives us in-person interviews of close to 30 people – from New York City, Massachusetts, the rust belt, Minneapolis, northern and southern California – starting in 2009 and providing satisfying recent follow-ups.

Garson, a Brooklyn native, is a resident of Westbeth. She became known in the 1960s for her first published work, the play MacBird!. This is her fourth book dealing with economic issues.

Garson’s sharp eye and ear bring her subjects vividly to life. Describing a Philippine-American real estate speculator who came to ruin, she writes, “I don’t know of any orthography that will catch the way she can pipe three musical tones into a single syllable…” Garson’s empathetic nature does not turn to sentimentality. In fact she makes objective and blunt observations to people in a manner which they handle very well.

The follow-ups often reveal unexpected turns of events. One story is that of an Indonesian-American family (by way of the Netherlands) living in Vallejo, California, north of San Francisco. The area had become depopulated after the closing of its big shipyard in the 1996; then the housing crisis caused the city to go bankrupt. Even the Wal-Mart closed. The husband was laid off from his good paying job as a social work professional. When Garson visited he was actively job searching, with almost no responses, and was continuing to pay the mortgage while vainly trying to negotiate a modification. He and his wife feel attached to the home and garden they had expanded and renovated over the years. They have a young son who, when he reaches school age, will need private schooling because the public schools are so bad. Garson’s follow-up interview a year later surprises her.

Garson sometimes discerns that her subjects have been the victims of unscrupulous practices, but for the most part they come across as pretty sharp and capable. When they have made poor financial decisions, those decisions seem understandable. Others are coping with unfair employment conditions. I felt cheered by their resilience.

Like many observers, Garson worries about income inequality and the declining living standards of average Americans. Can U.S. workers overcome the unavoidable pressures of global competition and automation? Will people drop out in favor of a hippie lifestyle like one of her intelligent subjects? Will job training, better schools, competitive advantage from technology, or currency realignment help? No quick fixes there. Without getting into politics, Garson offers a rational, thought provoking analysis.

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