Straight Talk About the Success Sequence, Marriage, and Poverty

Surprisingly, Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute clearly leans in the direction of the view that the structural forces bearing down on the poor are so powerful now as to make individual agency difficult for less-advantaged young men and women, and cultural messages like the success sequence—1) get at least a high school degree, 2) get a full-time job, and, 3) get married before having any children—largely irrelevant, a “sideshow” rather than the “main event” in thinking about ways to help the poor. His emphasis on social structure in his essay is overdone: we cannot lose sight of the importance of culture and personal agency in our efforts to increase the odds that poor, Black, and Hispanic Americans have a shot at the American Dream.

To be clear, I certainly wouldn’t minimize the structural challenges facing poor, Black, and Hispanic young adults. As Wendy Wang and I noted in our recent report, The Millennial Success Sequence, “young adults from poor neighborhoods, bad schools, and less educated families are going to have fewer opportunities to flourish in school, work, and the marriage market.” In fact, in our research on millennials, we find that young adults aged 28 to 34 from lower-income families are about half as likely to have completed the success sequence, or be on track with the sequence, compared to their peers from upper-income families. Clearly, social structure matters.

But today social structural factors do not exclude young men and women from low-income families, nor African American and Hispanic young adults, from following the success sequence. Fully 31 percent of young adults aged 28 to 34 from lower-income families, 24 percent of African Americans, and 42 percent of Hispanics have completed or are on track with the sequence, according to our research. Moreover, even for these young adults from less-advantaged backgrounds, following the sequence dramatically reduces their odds of being poor as they move into their late twenties and thirties. All told, only about 9 percent of young adults from less-advantaged backgrounds are poor if they are on board with the success sequence, whereas at least 18 percent of their less-advantaged peers are poor if they have missed 1-2 steps, and at least 55 percent of such peers are poor if they have missed all three steps. To put it another way, young men and women from less-advantaged backgrounds who missed 1-2 steps are about twice as likely to be poor, and those who missed all three steps are about six times as likely to be poor, compared to their peers from lower-income or minority backgrounds who are living in accord with the sequence.

Following the success sequence is clearly linked to better financial outcomes—even for young adults from lower-income families, and for Black and Hispanic young adults. But correlation doesn’t equal causation. Is there any reason to think each of these steps actually reduce poverty, rather than just indicating other traits or advantages (e.g., self-control, having grown up in an intact family) that are characteristic of young men and women who follow the sequence?

Most scholars and observers, left and right, acknowledge the value of the first two steps, education and full-time work, when it comes to boosting income and reducing your odds of poverty in America. But marriage’s importance is controverted, especially by many progressives. Matthew Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project, for instance, discounts the importance of marriage, arguing instead that “work does all of the work” in explaining the success sequence’s relationship to lower poverty. However, this is not the case for today’s millennials.

Young adults who put marriage before the baby carriage are 60 percent less likely to end up poor as young adults compared to their peers who have a child outside of marriage, even after controlling for full-time work, as well as other important factors like their education, race, ethnicity, Armed Forces Qualification Test scores, and family income growing up. Why does marriage matter? Part of the story here seems to be that couples who lock in their joint commitment in a public, institutional way by marrying before having children are much less likely to break up, less than half as likely, in fact. Accordingly, men who have children outside of marriage are much more likely to end up as nonresidential fathers with child support obligations and reduced marital prospects, and women who have children outside of marriage are much more likely to end up as single mothers with reduced marital prospects as well. This, then, is partly why nonmarital childbearing is a pathway to poverty, for both women and men.

So, dropping out of high school, not having a full-time job (or being married to someone who does), and having a child outside of wedlock are all associated with a dramatically increased risk of being poor. This is information worth sharing with today’s adolescents and young adults. Not to engage in “victim blaming,” as Tanner suggests, but to give them a clear sense of how some choices are more likely to steer you clear of poverty and into the American middle class or higher.

Some communities in America convey the success sequence’s three rules to their young adults very emphatically. The importance of these norms gets through loud and clear in much of Mormon Utah, many immigrant communities, and in countless upper-middle class homes, neighborhoods, and schools across the nation. A whole host of stories, ideals, expectations, and norms in these communities foster adherence to the success sequence. This adherence, in turn, reduces the odds that their young adults end up poor, even when those young adults hail from poor and working-class families. It’s no accident, for instance, that children raised in lower-income families from Utah have markedly higher rates of economic mobility than children raised in lower-income families in most other states, or that children raised by poor Chinese immigrants from Brooklyn are much more likely than other poor children in New York City to get into the city’s elite public high schools, positioning them to move into the middle class or higher as adults. These young adults have been formed by communities that reinforce their own versions of the sequence—even in the face of social structural obstacles that make following the sequence more difficult.

There’s no reason, however, to limit the success sequence’s message to the offspring of the privileged, particular immigrant groups, or the religious. All young Americans—regardless of their parents’ education, ethnicity, or religious commitments (or lack thereof)—deserve to hear straight talk about the importance of education, work, and marriage. Although this message is not a panacea, and it is not a substitute for taking policy actions to address structural disadvantages —like reforming education, expanding the child tax credit, and increasing wage subsidies, we owe it to our young people to tell them the truth about how the exercise of their own agency in the direction of particular choices rather than others is likely to affect their own financial future. Doing anything less is just one more way in which our country locks in durable inequality for poor, Black, and Hispanic young men and women, and increases the odds that they forge a path into adulthood not towards the American dream, but towards poverty.

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.