Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America’s Working Men and Women, by Batya Ungar-Sargon (Encounter Books, 232 pp., $29.99)

The gap between the economic and social fortunes of the working class and those with college degrees has become a major point of contention in American policy circles, and it is the focal point of Batya Ungar-Sargon’s new book, Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America’s Men and Women.

Her book is divided into two halves. The first profiles the state of the working class; the second contains policy prescriptions that Ungar-Sargon believes would boost its fortunes. Discussing how “working class” has been defined, she finds it useful to apply the label to those without a college degree and in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution, though she recognizes that some people with college degrees also earn below the median income.

Ungar-Sargon effectively shows that not all parts of the working class are alike. Some are doing well, in fact. She sorts the working class into three tiers: the Struggling, the Floating, and the Rising, illustrating each with data and profiles of its members.

The Struggling are essentially the working poor—those barely getting by. Plagued by bad credit and personal instability, they lack a solid foundation from which to build a life. Every time they start to get things together, some event derails their progress. Many receive public benefits even when working, and they often endure hardships, including homelessness.

The Floating can pay their bills and aren’t in great distress, but they have little prospect of getting ahead. Homeownership and retirement savings remain a struggle.

The Rising are the successful working class. Whether it’s through being skilled in a trade, such as electrician, or holding down a high-paying union job, they have made progress toward the American Dream. Of particular interest here are Ungar-Sargon’s descriptions of people working in service positions, such as housekeeper in the Las Vegas hotel industry, who, by virtue of their sector-wide contract through the Culinary Workers Union, earn good pay and get down-payment assistance in buying a home.

Though Ungar-Sargon doesn’t highlight it, a common thread in many of her portraits is an unstable personal life. Some of the people she profiles come from broken or abusive homes. Many are divorced or have had children out of wedlock. A typical example here is Linda, who was raised by her grandparents, had a child of her own at 15, and dropped out of school. Such lives display the kinds of social dysfunctions detailed by writers like Robert Putnam (Our Kids) and Charles Murray (Coming Apart). These problems inevitably intersect with and influence economic predicaments, and they are a tough nut to crack for public policy.

On a more positive note, while housing costs loom large, Ungar-Sargon’s data show high levels of homeownership among the working class, with virtually every occupation she lists boasting a rate over 50 percent, and some much higher.  

Ungar-Sargon offers an array of policy prescriptions. The most important is her call for immigration reform. Large-scale low-skill immigration, she observes, harms many working-class Americans by reducing their wages and bargaining power relative to employers. At the same time, it benefits many corporations and underwrites cheap personal services for the professional-managerial classes, who rely on immigrant nannies, delivery drivers, restaurant staff, and others. This helps explain the popularity of mass low-skill immigration among elites. She proposes securing the border and pursuing immigration policy based on what’s best for the working class.

Ungar-Sargon wants to eliminate college-degree requirements for certain jobs where such a credential is not truly necessary. Governments and private-sector employers have already taken some steps in this direction. She also wants to see more investment in training the working class, citing the joint employer-union programs of the Las Vegas hotel industry as an example.

Another area for reform is the social safety net, where many programs are designed with a “benefits cliff,” in which workers don’t gain from winning a raise or working more hours because the extra money they earn is offset—or more than offset—by a reduction in benefits. Various programs also contain marriage penalties that strongly discourage working-class people from tying the knot. Given the enormous benefits of marriage—particularly for children, as documented in works like Melissa Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilegethese marriage penalties are especially perverse. Changes in policy could fix both problems.

Ungar-Sargon’s call for zoning reform to reduce housing prices is less persuasive. Legalizing and expanding “missing middle” housing, as she advocates, is a good idea on the merits, but it’s not likely to move the needle much. Zoning isn’t any tighter than it used to be in most places, and housing prices have gone up significantly even in weak-demand markets like Flint and Youngstown. Rising housing prices are a result of many factors beyond zoning, including excessive environmental regulations. And for some, at least, the American Dream remains a single-family home with a yard, not a unit in a fourplex.

Still, many of Ungar-Sargon’s suggestions would likely help working-class Americans. The problem: our current political environment is not an auspicious one for reform.

Photo: Phynart Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus


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