Any successful strategy for fighting poverty in the United States needs to start with an understanding of the reasons why people are in poverty. Yet few areas of social science are as hotly debated as this one.
Progressives tend to focus on structural causes of poverty, such as racism, gender-based discrimination, and economic dislocation. On the other hand, most conservative critiques of welfare suggest that poverty is a result of the behavior of individual poor people and the culture that influences the choices they make. Specifically, conservatives point out that if someone finishes high school, gets a job, gets married, and only then has a child, they are unlikely to live in poverty. This is frequently referred to as the “success sequence.”
There is a strong circumstantial case to support the truth of the success sequence.
Certainly there is a robust statistical relationship between individual behavioral characteristics and the likelihood that a person will either escape poverty or rise out of it. As Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution notes, 73 percent of whites and 59 percent of African-Americans who follow the sequence not only escape poverty but actually reach the middle class.
Individual components are strongly related to an individual’s likelihood of being financially secure. For instance, poverty rates are much higher among those who do not graduate high school than among those who graduate college. Among people 25 and older, almost a quarter of those without a high school degree are poor, nearly double the percentage for high school graduates, and nearly five times higher than the poverty rate for college graduates.
Similarly, just 2.2 percent of full-time workers are poor. Even part-time work makes a measurable difference. Only 13 percent of part-time workers are poor, compared with 21.6 percent of people 16 and older who do not work. And, perhaps most controversially, unmarried women who have children are five times more likely to be poor than women who do not have children until marriage. Roughly 63 percent of all poor children reside in single-parent families. Poverty rates for minority single parents are even higher. In 2016, half of all children living in both Black and Hispanic mother-only households were poor.
There is also a great deal of common sense behind the proposition that an education, a job, and marriage make it easier to avoid or escape poverty. Consider even the most controversial aspect of the success sequence: avoiding nonmarital childbearing. Social scientists can and do debate questions of cause and effect, but it is undeniable that trying to support a child on one income is likely to be more difficult than two. A single mother is more likely to have trouble with childcare that could interrupt education or employment opportunities. Employers may be consciously or unconsciously more hesitant to hire single mothers, who may have to take time off to care for their children. An unmarried birth may not itself cause a woman to fall into poverty, but it likely makes it more difficult to climb out.
Those who point to the success sequence are also correct to note that incentives matter, and this is as true for antipoverty policy as for anything else. As my own scholarship has demonstrated, the combination of taxes, phasing out welfare benefits, and the expenses of going to work can mean that this country’s highest marginal tax rates are faced by those leaving welfare for an entry-level job. Moreover, most welfare programs result in similar disincentives for marriage. It is often a better financial decision, at least in the short term, to cohabit rather than marry. To the degree that welfare programs discourage work and marriage, they are undoubtedly counterproductive.
Finally, treating the poor with respect requires granting them agency, recognizing that they have the ability to make choices, and that those choices have consequences. One cannot assume that the poor are simply chaff blown by the wind, helpless and passive in the face of circumstances beyond their control. Nor can one deny them responsibility for their choices. To do so devalues the poor and treats them as less than fully human.
Yet despite this evidence, I find that failure to follow the success sequence is ultimately unsatisfying as an explanation for poverty. At least I find an overreliance on this explanation among many conservative poverty scholars. (In fairness, I should admit that I have often made many of these arguments myself).
First, we need to recognize that correlation does not necessarily prove causation. While the evidence cited above demonstrates a robust statistical relationship between joblessness, low educational attainment, nonmarital childbearing, and poverty, a “chicken or the egg” problem makes assigning the weight of causality to one or the other unclear. Ownership of a private jet is even more strongly associated with financial success, yet that doesn’t mean jet ownership is what allowed these individuals to escape poverty. And we certainly shouldn’t blame the poor for the failure to pursue jet ownership.
For example, current scholarship appears to be shifting from a belief that getting pregnant outside of marriage pushes women into poverty toward the idea that poverty itself encourages women to engage in behavior that leads them to become pregnant outside of marriage.
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.
There is no reason to believe that low-income Americans value work, marriage, or education less than those in the middle-class. Surveys of the poor regularly show that they want a job, marriage, and an education. However, they are also less likely to believe those goals are attainable or that they will benefit from them even if they achieve them.
And their expectations, or lack thereof, are not unreasonable given their life experiences. We should recognize that it is much easier to follow the success sequence in areas that have good schools, plentiful jobs, and a large pool of potential marriage partners than it is in many high poverty communities. As one social worker puts it, “When our clients don’t finish high school, it’s because their lives (or schools) have been chaotic, not because they don’t care. When our clients don’t have a job, it’s because they can’t find one or have other obligations, like caring for children. It’s not because they think joblessness is the path to middle-class stability.”
Consider, for example, Sandtown, the area of Baltimore that was the epicenter of rioting following the still unsettled death of Freddie Grey in 2015. This is an area where nearly a third of houses are boarded up and abandoned. The community lacks a supermarket or even a fast food restaurant. Unemployment exceeds 20 percent, three times the city average. Schools are underperforming even by the dismal standards of Baltimore. Incarceration rates are higher than in any other Baltimore neighborhood. Should we really expect children growing up in this neighborhood to make the same choices as children growing up in, say, the Bradley Manor Longwood neighborhood of Bethesda (Maryland’s wealthiest community)?
Moreover, the choices that the poor make may be constrained by race, gender, and financial limitation.
Take, just one part of the success sequence, delaying childbearing until after marriage. This seemingly simple advice ignores the question of just who those poor women are supposed to marry. For every 100 black women age 25-50 and not in jail in America, there are just 83 black men. That amounts to roughly 1.5 million “missing” black men. Mass incarceration, driven by a racially discriminatory criminal justice system, is the single biggest reason. And, in inner cities and high poverty areas, this depopulation is even more extreme. Since a desire for sex, either for pleasure or intimacy, is a part of human nature, women are going to have sex, and will sometimes become pregnant as a result, even if they can’t find a suitable marriage partner. Harvard’s William Julius Wilson, in particular, has written extensively on how the lack of marriageable men in poor, minority communities pushes women into poverty.
As with marriage, the criminal justice system has an impact on the ability of the poor and minorities to find work. The overwhelming preponderance of the academic literature suggests that employers are, not surprisingly, reluctant to hire those with a criminal history. Yet, roughly a quarter of all non-incarcerated black men have a criminal record. Nor should we ignore the continued impact of racial discrimination on hiring. By and large, African-Americans remain “last hired, first fired.” Historically, African-American unemployment has been roughly double that of whites since at least the mid-1950s, when the Labor Department first started collecting unemployment data by race.
At the same time, large areas of impoverished America are employment deserts. The creative destruction of free market capitalism benefits everyone, including the poor, over the long run. But there is no denying that in the short term the economic disruption can be particularly problematic for those with minimal skills. Compound this with government regulations that make it difficult to start a business or require expensive and time consuming licenses, transportation difficulties, and other policies, and “get a job” becomes much more difficult than it sounds.
Finally, finishing school is far more difficult in communities with failing schools, poor teachers, and disciplinary policies that are unfairly and unevenly applied.
It is also important to note that Reeves’ statistics cited above, in fact, illustrate that, even if an African-American follows the success sequence in its entirety, he or she is less likely to achieve “success” than a white person who does those things. That clearly suggests that this country’s long history of racial discrimination continues to distort outcomes regardless of the choices that individuals make.
By ignoring the broader context in which choices occur, discussion of the success sequence too often devolves into a form of “victim blaming.” Too often, the media and politicians translate academic discussions of the success sequence into the idea that the poor are lazy, unintelligent, and promiscuous. Essentially, the argument becomes: the poor deserve it.
Moreover, there is a heavy racial overlay to much of the discussion. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who, himself, chronicles the dysfunctions of some aspects of poor Africa-American culture, warns, “Some of the cultural traits associated with the ghetto poor (for example, attitudes toward authority, work, violence, parenting, sex and reproduction, school, and crime) closely resemble familiar racist stereotypes about blacks.”
Of course, none of this is to absolve the poor from responsibility for bad decisions. Nor can we reasonably argue that poor choices about education, employment, and childbearing don’t have real-world consequences. Should we expect the poor to take responsibility for their own lives and do everything within their power to escape poverty and to help their children escape poverty? That seems self-evident. We should expect the poor to complete school, work a job, and avoid having children under circumstances they can’t afford. At the same time, we should also recognize that such behavioral and cultural changes are unlikely to occur in a vacuum.
Until we deal with such issues as a biased criminal justice system, a failing public school system, and barriers to job creation, let alone systemic racism and gender bias, the success sequence seems more sideshow than main event.
 Richard V. Reeves, Edward Rodrigue, and Alex Gold, “Following the Success Sequence? Success Is More Likely if You’re White,” Brookings Social Mobility Papers No. 12, August 6, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/social-mobility-memos/posts/2015/08/06-following-success-sequence-race-reeves.
 Eve Tushnet, “What’s Wrong With the “Success Sequence,” Institute for Family Studies (blog), April 16, 2018, https://ifstudies.org/blog/whats-wrong-with-the-success-sequence.
 Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt, and Kevin Quillers, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men,” New York Times, April 20, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/20/upshot/missing-black-men.html.