Why Does the Success Sequence Work?

There is so much in Michael Tanner’s essay that I agree with that I am not sure what to add. Probably my favorite paragraph is the one that talks about individual agency. As he says, “One cannot assume that the poor are simply chaff blown by the wind, hapless 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.”

He goes on to note that some conservatives exaggerate the extent to which the lack of appropriate behavior is a cause of poverty. Again, I agree entirely. We definitely have a chicken and egg problem here. Correlation is not causation and any causation goes in both directions.

Ron Haskins and I have been writing about these issues for many years. We first addressed the importance of education, work, and marriage and their correlation with poverty back in 2003. We wrote about it again in our book, Creating an Opportunity Society, in 2009. We have always recognized the difference between correlation and causation. (I will spare you chapter and verse.) We think it’s almost impossible to identify precisely how much of any relationship is causal, but our review of the research literature does suggest that some if not all of the relationship between each step in the success sequence and one’s income is causal. Common sense suggests as much. Education means higher earnings. Work brings in income. Two earners in a family is better than one. That review can be found in a technical appendix to a more recent paper that I first wrote a long time ago and updated earlier this year in the context of working on my forthcoming book, The Forgotten Americans. In the book, I use the success sequence once again as a useful framework for thinking about mobility.

I bore you with this publication history because far too many people make comments about our work without ever reading what we have actually written. Those who have tried to replicate our empirical findings, including recent and impressive work by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang with a younger population and a different data set, agree that our general findings have held up pretty well. Wilcox and Wang find that even after adjusting for family income during childhood, a college education, race/ethnicity, sex, and Armed Forces Qualification Test score, the success sequence works to reduce poverty and help people join the middle class. We find that of the three elements in the success sequence, work is key—it’s one reason that I focus on jobs and wages in my new book on The Forgotten Americans.

With all of this as background, let me make a few additional points:

First, the success sequence can be thought of as a values-based or normative frame that should guide our behavior as in “you should play by the rules,” and if you do you won’t be poor. Or it can be used as an analytical device to show that if you do play by the rules, your chances of being poor are much reduced. In the latter context, there need be no assumption about why you are or are not playing by the rules. If you don’t follow the success sequence, it could be because your circumstances made it impossible or it could be because you didn’t try hard enough. Probably the situation varies a lot from individual to individual and for many of us it’s some of both. In other words, one can show that education, work, and marriage matter without blaming the victim, on the one hand, or blaming society, on the other. In that sense, the success sequence is like a Rorschach test. You can read into it what you like. Put differently, one can be agnostic about whether we need more personal responsibility or policies that help people follow the success sequence—or both—but one shouldn’t doubt that it works.

Second, I have been doing focus groups in three cities as a supplement to my new book. One thing these conversations have revealed is how strongly most Americans feel about exercising personal responsibility. They are not asking for a lot of help from the rest of us. They are proud, dignified, and blame themselves if they are not doing well. Our meritocratic culture has had a profound effect on how most of them think and conduct themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t need or don’t deserve help. In fact, as someone who has won the lottery of life myself, I found it gut-wrenching to hear them talk this way. It just reinforces my point that individual agency and self-respect matter. It suggests that helping them succeed in these three domains of family, education, and work is the right solution. They don’t want handouts; they want handups and some kind of reward when they make the effort. My new book contains an entire policy agenda tied to this goal.

Third, Tanner cites Richard V. Reeves’ analysis of how the success sequence varies for blacks versus whites. As he notes, the overall finding was that among whites the proportion who had incomes that were 300 percent of the poverty line or better went from 65 percent to 73 percent when everyone followed the success sequence. Among blacks, that same proportion went from 45 percent to 59 percent. Blacks, in short, started at a lower level but gained far more both absolutely and relatively than whites—even though it didn’t equalize their chances of being in the top half of the income distribution. Notably, however, if blacks followed the success sequence they were just as likely as whites to become middle class (that is, to have an income between 300 and 500 percent of poverty). The reason they didn’t do as well overall is because fewer blacks than whites make it into the highest income ranks (six digit incomes or better). That shouldn’t be a big surprise when one realizes that the educational rule is simply to finish high school. As we all know, and as Michael notes, in today’s labor market to do that well one needs more than a high school education. So perhaps we need to modify the rule to say that one needs at least some postsecondary education to succeed. Alternatively, we could redefine success as becoming “middle class” rather than “middle class or better.” None of this means that “a long history of racial discrimination,” as Michael also notes, doesn’t play a role. Poor schools in segregated neighborhoods hamper black progress at every level, including their chances of both attending college and graduating.

At the end of his essay, Tanner has a nice paragraph that recognizes the importance of both individual agency and the fact that behaviors such as completing school, working full-time, and having children before marriage don’t occur in a vacuum. Our choices are constrained. Clearly right, I think. But then he concludes with a statement that left me puzzled. He says the success sequence seems more “sideshow than main event.” For a libertarian to label individual choices about education, work, and family a sideshow was a big surprise to me and seemed inconsistent with the rest of his essay. Perhaps he will clarify this point in future posts. In the meantime, I will simply note that labeling education, work, and family a “sideshow” when talking about people’s lives defies common sense.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael D. Tanner looks at the empirical support for the so-called success sequence, a set of life choices that seems to allow those who follow it a good chance to avoid poverty. Much evidence supports the idea that people who finish high school, get a job, get married, and only then have kids are unlikely to be poor. But Tanner finds that this formula sidesteps a number of very difficult questions.

Response Essays

  • Isabel V. Sawhill agrees with much in Michael Tanner’s lead essay; to her way of thinking, following the “success sequence” is definitely correlated with success. But is it because these actions yield success? Or is it because people who would succeed anyway are more likely to follow them? We may even give a partial yes to both questions. She questions, however, the role that Tanner assigns to individual agency, finding it much less than what she might expect for a libertarian.

  • W. Bradford Wilcox is surprised to find Michael Tanner accepting the importance of structural factors in the origin of poverty. Although Wilcox agrees that these factors are important, he also stresses individual agency. He argues that marriage is highly consequential in helping younger people escape poverty, and that the causality behind this link is easy to understand: Married couples are much better prepared to face the consequences of childbearing without becoming poor. Young people of all backgrounds still need to hear this message, he argues.

  • Philip N. Cohen argues that marriage is the weak link of the success sequence. While getting married first is indeed good for children, public policy to encourage that step has been a failure. Marriage rates have continued to fall despite proponents’ success in enacting their public policy goals. Cohen doubts that the money has been well spent and he recommends a closer look at the racially charged assumptions behind conservative rhetoric about marriage.