What Does the Success Sequence Mean?
By Bryan Caplan
If you live in the First World, there is a simple and highly effective formula for avoiding poverty:
1. Finish high school.
2. Get a full-time job once you finish school.
3. Get married before you have children.
Researchers call this formula the “success sequence.” Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill got the ball rolling with their book Creating an Opportunity Society, calling for a change in social norms to “bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.” The highest-quality research on this success sequence to date probably comes from Wendy Wang and Brad Wilcox. In their Millennial Success Sequence, they observe:
97% of Millennials who follow what has been called the “success sequence”—that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order—are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34).
One common criticism is that full-time work does almost all the work of the success sequence. Even if you drop out of high school and have five kids with five different partners, you’ll probably avoid poverty as long as you work full-time. Wilcox and Wang disagree:
…This analysis is especially relevant since some critics of the success sequence have argued that marriage does not matter once education and work status are controlled.
The regression results indicate that after controlling for a range of background factors, the order of marriage and parenthood in Millennials’ lives is significantly associated with their financial well-being in the prime of young adulthood. Simply put, compared with the path of having a baby first, marrying before children more than doubles young adults’ odds of being in the middle or top income. Meanwhile, putting marriage first reduces the odds of young adults being in poverty by 60% (vs. having a baby first).
But even if the “work does all the work” criticism were statistically true, it misses the point: Single parenthood makes it very hard to work full-time.
A more agnostic criticism doubts causation. Sure, poverty correlates with failure to follow the success sequence. How, though, do we know that the so-called success sequence actually causes success? It’s not like we run experiments where we randomly assign lifestyles to people. The best answer to this challenge, frankly, is that causation is obvious. “Dropping out of school, idleness, and single parenthood make you poor” is on par with “burning money makes you poor.” The demand for further proof of the obvious is a thinly-veiled veto of unpalatable truths.
A very different criticism, however, challenges the perceived moral premise behind the success sequence. What is this alleged moral premise? Something along the lines of: “Since people can reliably escape poverty with moderately responsible behavior, the poor are largely to blame for their own poverty, and society is not obliged to help them.” Or perhaps simply, “The success sequence shifts much of the moral blame for poverty from broad social forces to individual behavior.” While hardly anyone explicitly uses the success sequence to argue that we underrate the blameworthiness of the poor for their own troubles, critics still hear this argument loud and clear – and vociferously object.
Thus, Eve Tushnet writes:
To me, the success sequence is an example of what Helen Andrews dubbed “bloodless moralism”…
All bloodless moralisms conflate material success and virtue, presenting present successful people as moral exemplars. And this, like “it’s better to have a diploma than a GED,” is something virtually every poor American already believes: that escaping poverty proves your virtue and remaining poor is shameful.
The appeal of the success sequence, then, appears to be about more than whether it’s a good idea. In a society where so much of one’s prospects are determined by birth, it makes sense that narratives pushing individual responsibility—narratives that convince the well-off that they deserve what they have—take hold.
The success sequence also ignores the circumstances in which the poor make choices. Our choices result from a complex process that is influenced at each step by a variety of outside factors. We are not perfectly rational actors, carefully weighing the likely outcomes for each choice. In particular, progressives are correct to point to the impact of racism, gender-based discrimination, and economic dislocation on the decisions that the poor make in their lives. Focusing on the choices and not the underlying conditions is akin to a doctor treating only the visible symptoms without dealing with the underlying disease.
Strikingly, the leading researchers of the success sequence seem to agree with the critics! Wang and Wilcox:
We do not take the view that the success sequence is simply a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” strategy that individuals adopt on their own. Rather, for many, the “success sequence” does not exist in a cultural vacuum; it’s inculcated by an interlocking cultural array of ideals, norms, expectations, and knowledge.*
This is a strange state of affairs. Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty. And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ…
* To be fair, Wang and Wilcox also tell us: “But it’s not just about natural endowments, social structure, and culture; agency also matters. Most men and women have the capacity to make choices, to embrace virtues or avoid vices, and to otherwise take steps that increase or decrease their odds of doing well in school, finding and keeping a job, or deciding when to marry and have children.”
[to be continued]