The Success Sequence: Normative or Descriptive?

Isabel Sawhill, Brad Wilcox, and Philip N. Cohen all provide cogent and thoughtful responses to my original essay on the success sequence. I think there may be more common ground here than there might appear given the often contentious public debate around this topic. The response essays spark a few additional thoughts:

  1. Standard economic theory has long encompassed the idea that individuals make choices subject to constraints. Those faced with different constraints are likely to make different decisions. I think this is something that we would all agree with. I would also argue that it is clear that the poor, women, and racial minorities on average face different constraints than do the wealthy, men, or whites. I don’t think acknowledging this in any way limits the agency of the people involved. It does, however, suggest that changing those choices may require societal changes that alter those constraints. Is this an area where we all agree?
  2. I think that Isabel makes a very important distinction between seeing the success sequence as an analytical device and seeing it as a normative frame. All of us seem to agree that employment, educational attainment, and, at least to some degree, delayed childbearing can make it easier to avoid or escape poverty.The larger question, and a source of much bigger disagreement, is what this suggests in terms of public policy.

    If one sees the success sequence as more normative, or perhaps prescriptive, that can lead to policies that put the onus on the poor themselves to change their behavior. That appears to be what Brad suggests when he calls for sending a message to the poor about the importance of things like marriage, or when he lauds immigrant communities for the way they stress adherence to the success sequence. Yet I have seen little evidence that the poor don’t already value education, work, and even marriage. After all, roughly 93 percent of women, including the vast majority of poor women, will eventually marry.

    On the other hand, if we accept the success sequence as more of an analytic framework, it opens the door to a larger contextual approach. That is, as I tend to believe, if we change the environment in which the poor live—change the constraints—they could be expected to make different choices on their own.

  3. There is a presumption in this debate that 1950s style heteronormative monogamous marriage is an unalloyed good. That notion is under challenge on a worldwide basis, and we should at least consider the idea that family definitions have shifted over time and may continue to evolve. Do we really want to cajole or force poor women into loveless, abusive, or otherwise unsatisfying marriages merely because they may provide a financial advantage?
  4. Regardless of which side of this debate one comes down on, there seems to be little role for increased government involvement. Even if one fully buys into the success sequence, one has to acknowledge that decades of government efforts have, as Philip points out, been remarkably unsuccessful. At the same time, current welfare programs discourage both work and marriage. That would seem to argue for less government, not more.

On the other hand, if you believe that structural constraints bear a considerable degree of responsibility for poverty, we should recognize that those structures are largely government imposed. Our criminal justice system is a government institution. The government runs our failed schools. It is government that imposes job-killing taxes and regulation on business trying to operate in poor neighborhoods. Once again, that would seem to argue for less government, not more.

However you look at it, government is acting as a structural barrier to success.

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.