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How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession

Written by Barbara GarsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Barbara Garson

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On Sale: April 02, 2013
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-385-53275-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

One of our most incisive and committed journalists—author of the classic All the Livelong Day—shows us the real human cost of our economic follies.

The Great Recession has thrown huge economic challenges at almost all Americans save the super-affluent few, and we are only now beginning to reckon up the human toll it is taking. Down the Up Escalator is an urgent dispatch from the front lines of our vast collective struggle to keep our heads above water and maybe even—someday—get ahead. Garson has interviewed an economically and geographically wide variety of Americans to show the painful waste in all this loss and insecurity, and describe how individuals are coping. Her broader historical focus, though, is on the causes and consequences of the long stagnation of wages and how it has resulted in an increasingly desperate reliance on credit and a series of ever-larger bubbles—stocks, technology, real estate. This is no way to run an economy, or a democracy.


Excerpt

Chapter One

The Pink Slip Club

April 2009

Did you ever wonder how Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer of Seinfeld manage to pay Manhattan rents with those flaky jobs of theirs?

I met a group of four single New Yorkers who had worked at unglamorous office jobs and devoted their incomes—one earned $48,000 a year, one earned $52,000, and I’m guessing that the others earned around the same (they didn’t say)—to maintaining themselves, supporting their church, and experiencing the city.

Even before they lost their jobs, the four friends were constantly in and out of Geraldine’s, or Gerri’s, condominium near Lincoln Center. When Gerri mentioned to the congregation that she was now unemployed, her friend Elaine, who’d already been out of work for two months, said, “We ought to start a Pink Slip Club.”

The idea was to keep each other’s spirits up and to enjoy inexpensive outings around the city. “We might as well make something positive out of having free time during the day—while it lasts,” Elaine had said optimistically.

In the first couple of weeks they’d gone to a museum and to an afternoon concert, and Elaine had come over to Gerri’s to play Scrabble.

“Let’s do it again,” Gerri said.

“It was fun,” Elaine agreed. “But it felt strange in the middle of the day.”

Our Elaine is tall, blond, and more overtly glamorous than her Seinfeld namesake. Like Seinfeld’s Elaine, she can be a bit prickly, but that’s only when she senses disapproval or misunderstanding of her intentions. And unlike Seinfeld’s Elaine, she’s spontaneously generous. The job she lost involved processing accounts payable for a broadcasting conglomerate.

Gerri is short, dark, and quiet. When she speaks, it’s often to encourage others to express what they mean more fully or to point out the basic agreement that underlies seeming differences. I could tell how good she makes others feel by the way the doorman smiled when I asked for her and how he sang into the intercom, “Gerri, you have company.” For over twenty years Gerri had worked as an insurance adjuster at an office a short walk from her apartment.

Gerri and Elaine are suitable names for the two women, but it would raise constant misleading mental images to call the men George and Kramer. So I’m going to call them Kevin and Feldman from the Seinfeld episode where Elaine starts hanging out with three alternate buddies who turn out to be just too nice for her. It won’t throw you far off if you think of the Pink Slip men as agreeable Seinfeld avatars.

Kevin is slim, well-groomed, and precise. He frequently restates what the others say with just a small editorial tweak. Perhaps that’s because I’m there and he wants to make sure that the historical record is correct. But it may also be because Kevin was an editor at a trade journal. Despite the tendency to edit his friends, he’s attentive to them in matters like holding doors, locating things they’ve carelessly set down, collecting information they can use, offering refreshments around, and similar thoughtfulness.

Feldman, the second Pink Slip Club male, is a solidly built guy who practices kung fu, rides a motorcycle, plays in a drumming circle, and has a tendency to take the last two cookies on the plate. (But he’ll put one back if he notices.) Feldman did graphics--text layout--at a textbook company.

Before we met, Gerri had told me on the phone about the day she lost her job. “I was paralyzed. Or not paralyzed but jelly, because somehow I could move. I got my stuff together like a zombie. Six other people in our department got laid off that day, so I know it wasn’t me. But it’s like a divorce. You see your co-workers as much as your family. More, because the whole time in the office you’re pretty much awake; a big part of the time at home you’re asleep.”

A colleague from another department called to ask Gerri out for dinner that evening. “She does that every time one of her friends gets laid off.” I have since met the woman, and she reports that Gerri appeared to move through the rest of the day with her usual quiet purposefulness. But that’s not how it felt to the victim.

“For the next three days I had migraine headaches. Then I got a cold. It had to be from the stress. I’m slowly pulling out of it. I’m getting my resume together.”

Our phone conversation took place less than two weeks after the blow. Despite apologies that she was still sleepwalking, Gerri e-mailed her Pink Slip Club comrades and got back to me with a meeting date for early the next week. By the time I met her in person, a plan of action was taking shape.

Gerri is active in a national civic organization whose name you’d almost certainly recognize. The New York chapter is large enough to have a local president paid $50,000. That’s only a couple of thousand less than Gerri’s salary as an insurance adjuster, and Gerri had thought about pursuing it in the past. But despite encouragement from other members of the board of directors, she’d always hesitated to quit a permanent job for one that would only last one or two years. Besides, the local presidency isn’t available for the asking; you have to run. But now, she says, “I’m unemployed, I might as well go for it. Maybe the Goddess is telling me this happened to me for a reason.” (The four Pink Slip Club members happen to be Wiccans and their congregation a coven. Hence, the “Goddess.”)

We had a few minutes to talk about the idea before the others arrived.

Elaine came to Gerri’s place straight from visiting a friend in Queens who’d lost her job in the same round of cuts at the broadcasting company.

“We worked in different buildings, so first we told each other our stories, then we had lunch in this wonderful Greek restaurant. It was crowded, but from the talk I heard, nobody was having a business lunch. I wondered, what do all these people do? It’s like they’re on a holiday in Florida. My friend was going to have a pedicure afterward. ‘Bring a book, just read and sit there and have a pedicure.’ She said we’ll do that together next time I go out there. Just relax and have a pedicure.”

“You just have to treat yourself every now and then when you’re on unemployment,” Gerri said approvingly.

“And she’s going to Yellowstone next week. She’s always wanted to go to Yellowstone.”

I wrecked Elaine’s mood by asking her to describe what happened on the day she was fired.

“The word is not ‘fired’!”

“I’m sorry, I just meant . . .”

“Someone is fired when they do something bad. I was laid off because they found a computer program to do the invoicing.”

I apologized, stammering that to me a layoff meant something temporary, like a seasonal layoff at a factory. If they weren’t going to call you back, then “layoff” was a euphemism.

Feldman explained the term’s functional significance for him. “ ‘Laid off’ means you can still collect your severance and unemployment. You didn’t get fired for cause.”

Though still annoyed, Elaine brought herself back to that day. “We got an e-mail that morning from the head of the whole company saying there were going to be some changes and layoffs. As soon as I finished reading that e-mail, we got one from the head of X [one of their big stations] saying, ‘Oh, it’s hard to say good-bye to people.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, shut up!’ Then my phone rang, and the division head’s assistant said, ‘Les wants to see you in the office in five minutes.’ And I knew what it was.

“When I got to his office, he was just getting there, and I said, ‘Oh, am I the first?’ And he said, ‘You know it’s not performance, Elaine.’ He was just being so condescending.

“I said, ‘I know it’s not performance. I don’t need to hear it.’ ”

Les asked Elaine to stay on for several weeks because the new computer system wasn’t up yet. “ ‘Your final day will be February 27 . . . We know you’ll be professional to the very . . .’

“I said, ‘I’ll just go and talk to HR.’ I didn’t let him finish.”

In HR, Elaine saw the woman assigned to present each person’s severance package and to make sure that everyone eventually signed a release freeing the company from any further obligation. “She said if I wanted to, I could take the rest of the day off.

“I said, ‘I can’t do that! This is the day we’re closing the month and the year for payrolls. [It was the beginning of December.] I have work to do!’ Later I told her, ‘I’ll take tomorrow and Friday off.’ Friday would count as one of my entitled free days, so it wouldn’t come out of my severance package.

“Of course I was going to remain professional till the end. There are people I worked with who need answers from me to get their jobs done. That’s what I was there for. It’s not their fault.” Elaine was proud that throughout nine years of mergers, buyouts, and other corporate discombobulations, she had kept those paychecks coming to the network’s celebrities, behind-the-camera employees, and vendors.

Elaine continued the story to the final moments of her final day when someone from human resources came down with her severance agreement.

“She said, ‘Do you want to sign it right here?’ I said no.” (Elaine knew that she had forty-five days to get the agreement back to the company and had already hired a lawyer to look at it.)

“I asked, ‘Do I have to go see anybody else before I leave?’ She said, ‘Nobody’s going to walk you out.’ So I went up to the shredder, I took my ID, I put it in the shredder, and then I walked out the door. It was a fairly nice day out. That night I went to the ballet and had a nice time.”

Isolated details from the moment of being fired (or laid off) have a way of becoming embedded in our minds. (Some wounded soldiers remember the bullet approaching in agonizing slow motion.) Fortunately, most of us soon encapsulate or neutralize the painful details by arranging them into a story that protects our dignity.

Elaine’s story shows her to be loyal to her colleagues and to her professional duties while treating the corporate types with the caustic but dignified disdain they deserved. As an added fillip, she enjoyed herself at the ballet that night. Not only that, but “the first day I wasn’t working it was a really big snowstorm and I was just delighted that I didn’t have to go anywhere.” I guess we know whose side the gods are on.

Kevin’s integrity had come into play years before his actual layoff from a finance-related professional organization, and that’s where he started his account when I asked what happened.

“With the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, our members had a lot to learn and relearn. At that point the editor in chief [Kevin worked on the organization’s journal], who started around the same time that I did, realized that we could not only provide information on the new rules to our members; we could become the voice of our industry speaking to the regulators and standard setters in Washington, D.C. He was very much a visionary.”

According to Kevin, the publication did, indeed, gain stature. But eventually the editor moved on. “It took me a while to realize that the new editor was not a visionary. The only question for her was how to maintain the status quo. So I found another position within the organization. But when the economic downturn came, several people were let go. I had kind of lost respect for the organization on account of the magazine becoming so status quo. I have no regrets really.”

In Kevin’s story, professional integrity dictated that he transfer from a secure position to one where he had insufficient seniority. This is as close as he got to describing the painful moment to me. But he liked to talk about the adventuresome decade before.

Ten years earlier Kevin had sold his house in Chicago, moved to New York without a job, and bought an apartment on Christopher Street. “I remade myself,” he said.

In New York he volunteered on weekends for a charity venture that raises considerable money for people with AIDS and for the homeless. Now he’d added a weekday shift. “I made a conscious decision to volunteer more because it would give me more of a structure and sense of purpose.

“I’m economical.” (Kevin’s friends confirmed that with fond laughs.) “I’m collecting unemployment. I probably have enough savings to survive until I start collecting Social Security. So I don’t have the urgency that Feldman has. But in some ways I wish I did because . . . the older I get the harder it’s going to be to find another job. I almost wouldn’t mind feeling a little more anxious. My biggest fear is that this will turn into, you know, the beginning of my retirement. I don’t want that.” Kevin is fifty-four.

I hadn’t yet asked these four unemployed New Yorkers how they were supporting themselves. But it didn’t seem to be an immediate concern to anyone except Feldman.

When he got out of college, Feldman had a girlfriend who acted as a subcontractor, hiring freelancers to do graphics for textbooks and magazines. As a recent and unemployed grad, Feldman hung around her apartment and noticed that she could never find enough reliable, skilled hands. He decided that he would master the craft. He even paid her for a few lessons on the most advanced programs.

Feldman soon had all the work he needed. In fact, his first job was a marathon of twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. “I went from earning nothing to making thirty grand in three months. It’s the most I ever earned in that industry.” All Feldman wanted was enough work to support himself, his rent-stabilized apartment in Inwood in northern Manhattan, and his motorcycle and his hobbies.

Over the years jobs got a bit scarcer, and Feldman sometimes had to take $25 an hour instead of $30. The more distressing development was that contractors took to paying freelancers forty-five, sixty, or even ninety days after the work was delivered. If they went out of business or if a client defaulted (and those things seemed to be happening more and more often), they “stiffed the guy at the bottom of the totem pole,” Feldman said.

“Yes, there’s a lot of freelancers getting stiffed,” Kevin confirmed.

“Sorry, our client didn’t pay us, so we can’t pay you—boo-hoo-hoo,” Feldman japed. “One time it made me so angry that I went up to the office, and I didn’t physically threaten the guy in charge, but I did intimidate. And of all the people who got paid, I wound up getting paid first.”
Barbara Garson

About Barbara Garson

Barbara Garson - Down the Up Escalator

Photo © Frank Leonardo

BARBARA GARSON is the author of three books: All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work, The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers are Transforming the Office of the Future, and, most recently Money Makes The World Go Around: One Investor Tracks her Cash Through the Global Economy. She has also written several plays, including Mac Bird! and the OBIE award-winning The Dinosaur Door, and her work has appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Nation.
Praise

Praise

Praise for Down the Up Escalator:

“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. . . .  Down the Up Escalator is best read as a kind of travelogue through a beaten-down but-not-broken United States. . . .  [It 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. . . .  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 . . . 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.” —Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times


“Barbara Garson has written a small masterpiece of wise and alarming reportage about how ordinary Americans are surviving during extraordinarily rotten times. Down the Up Escalator is a necessary antidote to all the blather about ‘freeing’ banks and investment houses from ‘crippling regulations.’” —Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation


“Do you want to know both how and why we got into the economic mess we are inand what it really means in the everyday life of real people? What is driving the pain deep in the bowels of the system—and how people are trying to counter it in the real world? Read this book; no one does it better and makes it readable and human to boot, than Barbara Garson.” —Gar Alperovitz, author of America Beyond Capitalism


“Most recessions come and go and leave little in their wake. People return to jobs, banks resume lending. But the Great Recession struck directly at the American dream of long-term employment and home ownership. Barbara Garson’s book is not about the collapse of firms that bet on complex derivatives, but about the human costs of the Great Recession. She recounts eloquently the bad dream from which we have still not awakened. Years from now, when historians want to know what it was really like to live during this recession, they'll find no better place to look than Garson’s book.” —John B. Judis, Senior Editor, The New Republic and Visiting Scholar, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

 
“Barbara Garson knows that the hard times so many people are living through are not just composed of headlines about corporate profits, unemployment rates and foreclosures; they are composed of human beings.  This book is a compassionate, probing, pointillist mural of the Great Recession and of the decades-long erosion of the average American’s economic position that preceded it, all told through the experiences of individual men and women.  She has followed some over time, has sought out others whose lives illuminate larger injustices, and has found people whose stories will stick with you.” —Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost


“Barbara Garson writes an honest and moving dispatch from the front lines of America’s new class war. These are the mounting casualties, betrayed by the American Dream and now struggling—largely alone—for survival and simple human dignity. Garson’s real-life stories give clues as to why the battered middle class has not yet erupted politically—and why it still might.” Jeff Faux, author of The Servant Economy and Distinguished Fellow, Economic Policy Institute
 

“In this evocative book, Barbara Garson hears out a host of victims, gamblers, and scramblers ensnared in the network of rackets that drives the American economy, and shows how high-level policies produce collateral damage and blast dreams. This is reporting for hearts and minds alike.” —Todd Gitlin, author of Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street


“Americans cope with the fallout from 40 years of dwindling prospects in this quietly harrowing mosaic of economic decline. Journalist Garson (All the Livelong Day) focuses on the basics—jobs, homes, money—and the people who have lost them since the 2008 financial crisis: a group of middle-aged New Yorkers who comfort each other as their layoffs turn into long-term unemployment; California homeowners, some facing immediate eviction, while others cynically game the foreclosure system; elderly pensioners who suddenly find their nest eggs crushed. Through their stories, she weaves lucid explanations of the mortgage bubble and financial speculations that wrecked the system, situating them within a larger analysis of the generations-long post-Vietnam economic transformation that replaced middle-class jobs with low-paid contingent labor, widened the gulf between the rich and the rest, and forced workers to take on ever more debt to keep their heads above water. Garson’s vivid, shrewd, warmly sympathetic profiles show the resilience with which ordinary Americans respond to misfortune, but also the enduring costs as they abandon hopes for a fulfilling career, an extra child, or a secure retirement. The result is a compelling portrait of an economy that has turned against the people.” Publishers Weekly (starred)



“Garson . . . combines her skills as a dramatist with her activist's conscience in this study of the economic issues confronting individuals and families in different parts of the country. . . . A skillful presentation that lifts the veil too often hiding areas that should be brought to light.” —Kirkus Reviews

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