May 2018

Pundits, particularly conservative ones, often like to say that one can follow a sequence to avoid poverty in America: Graduate high school. Find a job, even a humble one. And delay childbearing until after marriage. Do that, and the odds of being poor are quite low. 

But these things can be much easier said than done, and they can be cold comfort to those who have not been able to follow the sequence. Critics point out that not all parts of the sequence may be equally important, and that it may be much easier for some people to follow the sequence than others, not through their own failures, but through failing schools, lack of job opportunities, and lack of marriage partners, among other problems. These obstacles aren’t equally distributed across America, so the picture actually gets fuzzier the closer we look at it.

This month we’ve invited four experts to discuss the so-called “success sequence,” and the strengths and weaknesses of this idea as a way of thinking about poverty. Cato’s own Michael D. Tanner has written the lead essay, and responses will be from Isabel V. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Professor Philip N. Cohen of the University of Maryland at College Park, and Professor W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia. Discussion among the four is open through the remainder of the month. We also welcome readers’ comments for the same period.

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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.

Coming Up

Discussion through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Policy Analysis: Reassessing the Facts about Inequality, Poverty, and Redistribution,” by John F. Early, April 24, 2018

Policy Analysis: Five Myths about Economic Inequality in America,” by Michael D. Tanner, September 7, 2016