Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon wants “elite” Americans — the top 20% of wage earners — to understand their fellow Americans who are somewhere between rich and poor, those who struggle to find stability and achieve the American dream.

She spent a year traveling around meeting men and women in the working class, and the result of these interactions are her book “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America’s Working Men and Women.”

In an interview with the Deseret News, Ungar-Sargon spoke about the people she met and how in the past few years they have been ravaged by inflation, and global trade in the years before. But she said there is hope to rebuild the middle class, and she lays out what she thinks are the policies that will get us there.

She also explains that it is Donald Trump’s policies that helped get him elected, not his persona.

Toward the end of the interview, Ungar-Sargon, who is Jewish, spoke about her faith and how that affects her view of the people she calls “normie” Americans, and how her faith in them helped her in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and amid the rise of antisemitism.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Deseret News: In your book, you’re talking about the working and middle classes. How do you define this group of people who feel like they’re “second class”?

Batya Ungar-Sargon: The book is about the class divide and it’s about the idea that there is a dividing line. If you’re above it, your outcomes are much, much, much better. And if you’re below it, then they’re much, much worse, and that dividing line is a college degree.

I use middle class and the American dream in a similar way, as having achieved a kind of stability — home ownership or retirement, adequate health care, and when your children have at least as many opportunities as you did.

The way I defined working class was people who work in a trade that does not require a skill or a skill set that you would have learned in college or would be represented by a diploma, and who have been locked out of the top 20%. Most of the people I interviewed — in fact all of them — work full time in an industry that does not require skills you would have learned in college, although some of them have a college degree.

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DN: It’s hard to define the elite as well, right? People who I speak to who I would consider elite don’t think about themselves that way.

Ungar-Sargon: I think that’s a big part of the problem. The data shows the reason the elites don’t realize they’re elite is because they don’t think of themselves as rich. There’s a lot of class resentment in the top 20%, top 10% toward the billionaire class — they love to rail against the billionaires.

But honestly, if you compare the 1970s to today, the share of the GDP that is controlled by the billionaire class has not significantly changed. So what has changed? In the 1970s, the largest sector of the GDP was in the middle class, and it didn’t go to the billionaires, it went to the top 20%. The top 20% today controls over 50% of the GDP.

So a person making $250,000 a year and living in New York and raising children may not feel rich, but they’re making four times what the average working-class person is making and they will make a million dollars on average over the course of their career more than a person without a college degree just by virtue of having that degree. If you have two degrees, it’s even more, it’s about $1.8 million — and you will be healthier, you will live longer, you will have much easier access to homeownership.

And these may not sound like elite status symbols, but that is what I’m talking about in my book, they have become that because the American dream — the most humble version of it — is out of reach to most working-class people.

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DN: What did you see among the working class in terms of marriage and having children? How is that affecting people in the working and middle classes?

Ungar-Sargon: It’s really funny, because I’m obviously aware of the success sequence (which says for people to be successful they need a high school education, a full-time job and to get married before having children). I read all the literature about it and I went in expecting to find what the data shows, which is that having children outside of wedlock is just basically the number one predictor for whether they will be downwardly mobile and be poor, and all of this stuff.

I did meet a lot of people who were married and poor and who had done everything right, and they were still struggling mightily. And I did meet people who had their first child out of wedlock, second child, and then found the right man and settled down and clawed their way into the middle class. So I didn’t exactly find in my just anecdotal interviews, an exact replica.

Marriage as a value was extremely important to people, but not everybody felt that they were able to get married. A lot of people had come up in families that had fallen apart and they were terrified of divorce. And so they were extremely hesitant to commit to somebody, or they felt they had not found the right person. They really wanted to find the right person, but there was a gap between their desire to be married and the standards or the things that they felt could make them commit. And that was really, really hard to hear because you know the effect that’s going to have on children.

DN: In your book you talk about the “tax on marriage.” What do think are the public policies that affect people’s ability to get married?

Ungar-Sargon: All of the incentives are set up to reproduce dependency on the government and disincentivize getting married and finding a partner. There’s a thing called the benefits cliff. Say you’re a single mom and you’ve got a kid and you’re working part time and making $11 an hour. And maybe your kid has a disability and so they have Medicaid, which is the Cadillac of insurances. And let’s say your boss notices that you show up to work on time every day, you’re a really good worker, you’re a team player, and he says, “Hey, I want you full time. I want to get you up to 16 bucks an hour. I’m going to give you a full-time job with benefits.”

That woman will lose $25,000 a year in benefits if she takes that raise because she will lose food stamps, she will lose housing assistance, she will lose free child care, she will lose her the Medicaid. And even if that job is going to give her health care, it’s probably terrible health care — the premiums are incredibly high, the deductibles are insane, and she won’t know ahead of time if her child’s needs are covered.

People think that these people are lazy, but it would be a crime against her family for her to make that decision.

Let’s say she’s dating somebody, and he’s a really nice guy, and he’s got a great job. He’s a manager at Home Depot. If she marries him. She will lose — again — tens of thousands of dollars in benefits that she really needs, that she really relies on.

Maybe it will cost us a little bit more. But instead what we do is we incentivize the worst behaviors, we incentivize having children out of wedlock, we incentivize not getting married, not taking raises. We’re incentivizing all the wrong behaviors.

DN: You’ve talked about how the college degree acts as a gate out of the working class. That was the promise made by President Barack Obama, if you just get a college degree, you can make it. Do you think that’s still true?

Batya Ungar-Sargon, author of "Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America's Working Men and Women." | Chiarascura.com

Ungar-Sargon: I don’t think it’s causation. I think it’s correlation. While I’m saying that if you have a college degree today, you’re going to make on average a million dollars more than a person without a college degree, you’re going to live longer, you’re going to be much healthier, and you’re more likely to be able to be a homeowner and you’re going to be insulated from the kinds of deaths of despair that are plaguing the working class — but the answer isn’t that everybody should go to college.

First of all, not everybody wants to go to college. Not everybody’s good at book learning. We actually are already over-producing degrees, because only a third of Americans have a degree and yet over 50% of them are working in industries that do not require any skills that you learn in college. We have enough lawyers and doctors and accountants, and gender studies podcasters.

We have a huge dearth of skilled trades folks. Thank you, Obama, because he defunded vocational training, which was hugely disastrous, with this idea that everyone was going to go to college, for better or worse. I think it’s because they thought when you go to college, you become a good Democrat, which is definitely like another correlation.

What we need is a strong working class who can achieve the American dream. We need truckers, we need certified nurse’s aides, we need cleaning ladies. We need people to do working-class jobs for our society to thrive and it’s disgusting that they can’t achieve the most basic form of a stable life, because they’re doing the jobs that we all rely on. I think that’s really the problem here.

DN: Immigration affects working-class people in a different way than it affects the upper-middle class. The scarcity of housing, jobs — immigrants are mostly not competing with the upper-middle class for these things. And yet, we know many in the working and middle classes are trying to help immigrants, help their neighbors, these new members of their community. What did you hear when you were out talking to people in the working class about immigration?

Ungar-Sargon: Working class people are incredibly tolerant. They’re wonderful people. They would never turn their backs on a person in need who was living next door to them. At the same time, they are very aware of the fact that mass immigration has effectively been a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the elites who employ these people and pay them much less than they would have to pay a working-class American. They’re very aware of that.

Everyone I spoke to said some version of the same thing — “I’m not anti immigrant. I believe every person has the right to pursue the American dream, but why are they being fast-tracked ahead of us? Why are there so many opportunities for them and not anything for us?”

Really, they were embarrassed almost to talk about it because the media has done such an effective job of portraying anybody who’s opposed to mass migration as some sort of racist. And they were aware of that stereotype. And it was really devastating, actually, to have those conversations.

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DN: And Donald Trump has caught on to this idea. In an earlier Deseret News/HarrisX poll, we asked who represents you best as a politician and Trump won by a large margin among the working class. And when we asked why, it was because they felt he would stand up for them. Why do you think the working class gravitates toward Trump?

Ungar-Sargon: Because he created an economy that put money in their pockets for the first time in 50 years. It was all policy. They’ll point to his policies — tariffs, the trade war with China, policing the border. They have a very, very sophisticated understanding of the economy, and the things that he did that put money back in their pockets in a really big way.

They talk about the tax cuts. In terms of sheer numbers, the rich got the most of those tax cuts, but that’s because they pay most of the taxes. The highest percentage of people who got tax cuts from Trump were the working class and the middle class. They saw that money come into their bank accounts, people who have 50 bucks in their bank account are not wrong about what policies worked for them.

He created policies that worked for them and it’s really undeniable, unless you’re in the elite and your job is to gaslight people about how much money is in their bank account.

DN: There’s a conversation happening right now that the macro numbers are good, so therefore the Biden economy is amazing. And people say it’s a messaging problem, not an actual problem, that working working-class people are really better off and they don’t understand that. What is your response to that?

Ungar-Sargon: It’s just the return of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” right? Like they’re all voting against their best interests, their economic interests, being duped by culture war issues to sell out their children. It’s just so disgusting. I mean, groceries are up by 18%. These people are poor, they know the price of everything in their cart. It’s just so insane for millionaires on cable news to tell people who have had to put groceries back because they cannot afford them that the economy is good.

It is good — for rich liberals. Because if you have a stock portfolio, if you own a home, you’re doing great, because on the aggregate, the economy’s doing great. But we don’t live in the aggregate, we have a class divide and all of the gains have gone to the top 20%.

Democrats right now are a coalition of the rich and educated, and the dependent poor. They have no interest in the middle class and the middle class has no interest in them. All of their policies are a plunder of the middle class for the college-educated elite, who are so rich now they’re happy to pay higher taxes as like a kind of indulgence, right?

The whole middle is invisible. The working class is invisible to them. They cannot distinguish between a working-class person and a poor person, because the working-class person is effectively poor by their standards.

They don’t understand that what working-class people want is autonomy. They want to be middle class, they want to be left alone. They don’t want your welfare. They just want the most modest version of the American dream. And the idea that you can tax your way to somebody else’s autonomy, it’s meaningless. You can’t tax your way to affordable housing, you can’t tax your way to a dignified boss that pays good wages. It just doesn’t work that way.

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DN: What are the public policies that will help people who are struggling to make ends meet?

Ungar-Sargon: The second half of my book is full of totally non-partisan policy solutions that would immediately make life for working-class Americans much better. Getting rid of zoning laws. If we got rid of zoning laws tomorrow, we could build a million housing units a year and in a decade we would have solved our housing crisis.

Number two, get rid of degree requirements for jobs that do not require them. Make it illegal to use software that funnels people without a degree immediately out of the labor pool.

Number three, trade tariffs. Prioritize American workers. The way that trade works right now, when you have free trade, it makes it so that working-class Americans cannot afford what working-class Americans produce, and neither can the rest of the world. So we become the world’s consumers rather than the world’s producers.

We have to get back to an economy that has a huge portion built in manufacturing. We need to bring back vocational training. We give $200 billion a year to universities where people can learn to chant ”Intifada revolution” and just $1 billion to vocational training. It’s totally appalling.

Police the border. We need much less legal and illegal immigration, stop giving out H1-B visas like candy. Those are great jobs. Why are we not training Americans to have those jobs?

And I also think that there’s a huge cultural piece to it. We are waging war on masculinity.

We are waging war on what it means to be a man, what it means to be a provider, and that has had a huge impact on young working-class men who are dropping out of the workforce because we’ve devalued their jobs economically and we’ve devalued them spiritually and emotionally and psychologically, this all goes together. We have to turn this ship around and the good news is it will be extremely easy to do so.

DN: What did you learn about the role spirituality plays for the working class?

Ungar-Sargon: It comes back to the spiritual crisis. People don’t belong to communities anymore because of the breakdown of community in America, and so they don’t get the cultural and the social capital that you get from belonging to a community.

The elites are much less likely to be spiritual or religious, but much more likely to continue to take advantage of the capital and the opportunities you get from belonging to religious communities, which is again infuriating, because they’re so good at hacking the system in this like soulless way.

The people who had made it, the people who were in the middle class or in the sort of top tier of the working class who I met, were very religious and had religious community — not all of them, but a lot of them. Community was a big stabilizing force, especially for children. And then I met a lot of people who were just broken and alone and lonely.

There were so many times I wanted to say to somebody when I was interviewing them, like, oh man, you should go to church. I wanted to say that so many times. I didn’t feel like it was my place to say that, but one feels that acutely.

I met a lot of people who, without church, they would have been less financially secure. It’s very clear that church and family and marriage has this very stabilizing force. Even for people who don’t have a lot of opportunity economically, they’re much better off than people without that stuff. It’s extremely important.

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DN: Why is this so important to you? You’ve been talking about these issues for a while now — where is that drive coming from?

Ungar-Sargon: “Second Class” was totally driven by my love of the working class. I didn’t think about this a lot while I was writing it, but after Oct. 7, I think for Jewish people, it’s so clear how cherished we are in this country, and how impossible it would be to picture antisemitism spreading in America, because this country is the first country in human history to say, “we’re actually going to protect our Jews.”

And that remains the case today, despite all of the antisemitic activism on college campuses. We’re not Europe and we’re not Canada, where you have millions of people marching in the streets against Israel and against Jews.

And again, I didn’t think about this at all when I was writing the book, but since I’ve written the book, and then that happened, I feel so deeply grateful to this country and to the “normies” in this country — like to the average American, the normal regular person who are just making it so clear every day that they’re not going to give up on their Jews and they’re not going to allow anything to happen to us.

And I feel that so strongly, despite everything we see in the news. I know it to be the case because of the time I spent traveling around, and so I think it’s not why I wrote the book, but traveling around, promoting the book, it’s certainly the thing that comes to mind.

The cover of "Second Class" by Batya Ungar-Sargon is pictured in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 9, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News