About this Issue

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.

Lead Essay

The Success Sequence - and What It Leaves Out

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.[3] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

Response Essays

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.

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.

The Failure of the Success Sequence

The success sequence is often (mistakenly) attributed to the 2009 book Creating an Opportunity Society by the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill. “First comes education,” they wrote. “Then comes a stable job that pays a decent wage, made decent by the addition of wage supplements and work supports if necessary. Finally comes marriage, followed by children.” They called for “marketing campaigns and educational programs to change social norms: to bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.”

The only issue here is marriage, as the rest is obvious to everyone. And in that regard this model of social change is wholly unproven and without precedent. Seat belt laws and anti-smoking campaigns, always cited by success sequence advocates, are not comparable. Those are daily habits easily addressed by legal regulations and tax policy (seat belts are required by law; with taxes, the price of cigarettes has more than tripled since 1980). The decline in marriage is a massive global trend driven by economic development and cultural adaptation. And the decline in teen pregnancy, to which success sequencers also point as a precedent for public information campaigns, flows with rather than against that underlying trend. As I detail in my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, the drop in teen birth was part of the general increase in the age at which women have children, driven by the expansion of their educational and professional opportunities.

That idea of using public information campaigns to preach “marriage culture” echoed the futile proclamations of a previous generation. In a Hoover Institution symposium in 1996, former vice president Dan Quayle wrote that, “when it comes to strengthening families … we also desperately need help from nongovernment institutions like the media and the entertainment community.” Taking up the call with even more zeal, in 2001 Heritage Foundation fellow Patrick Fagan declared it was time to add three W’s to the common three R’s of schooling. “We need to stress something just as fundamental [as reading, writing, and arithmetic],” he wrote. “Call it the three W’s: work, wedlock and worship. … Put all three in the lives of parents and children, and they thrive.” Five years later, another Heritage fellow said of the three W’s, “According to the social science data, if these three fundamentals are in place, government social policy is virtually unnecessary.” In 2012, the National Marriage Project, under director W. Bradford Wilcox, was again calling for “community-based and focused public service announcements” and a Hollywood “conversation” to promote marriage.

Meanwhile, slightly more liberal think tank denizens had discretely replaced “worship” with education, but they stuck to the basic idea that the problem with poor people is that they’re doing life wrong—and the “three somethings” formula. In a 2006 report for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Marline Pearson wrote that it was time to “teach teens the rules of the success sequence,” which they defined as, “Finish high school, or better still, get a college degree; wait until your twenties to marry; and have children after you marry.” (Three things is a favorite formula of Chinese social engineers we well, as with Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Three Supremes”—but China combines such slogans with centralized education and state repression to increase their salience.)

Today, more than two decades after Quayle’s plea, 17 years after the three W’s, 12 years after the first “success sequence” proclamation, and one president after the National Marriage Project pitched its “President’s Marriage Agenda,” movement leaders are still calling for “Public and private social marketing campaigns on behalf of marriage and the ‘success sequence’,” to quote Wilcox and Wendy Wang’s latest report. Neither the policy nor the campaign to promote the policy have changed appreciably over the years, although the definition of the success sequence has varied from author to author. And in all this time, I could not find one academic study, outside of those published by think tanks, that seriously evaluates the claims of the success sequence.

What Could Go Wrong?

Today’s success sequence movement is puzzling in part because it fails to recognize—or admit—the extent to which its adherents already won. After the landmark 1996 welfare reform act, the federal government pumped more than $1 billion into national marriage promotion programs (the Healthy Marriage and the Responsible Fatherhood initiatives). This was cause for great celebration in the movement, as it should have been. In 2004, a Heritage Foundation report gushed, “The President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is a future-oriented, preventive policy. It will foster better life-planning skills—encouraging couples to develop loving, committed marriages before bringing children into the world.”

It didn’t. The previous decade’s marriage promotion programs sent the same message the “success sequence” promoters do today. But where is the recognition that they failed? Rigorous evaluations of the marriage promotion efforts showed unequivocally that they produced no increase in marriage, not even among the people coerced into sitting for hours in relationship skills courses required to qualify for welfare benefits. As most readers probably know, in the years after welfare reform, marriage rates have continued to fall, and they have fallen fastest for those with less than a college education, the very population the programs were supposed to help. Even though pro-marriage billboards dotted the highways and FedEx delivered thousands of new-daddy care packages to hospitals. In fact, the only people more likely to marry after all these years of conservative activism are gays and lesbians. (This history is also reviewed in my book.)

Does this mean it’s bad advice to get an education, get a job, and find a permanent partner before having children? Of course not. But the success sequence is bad public policy, which is not the same thing at all. For public policy the question is, what will we accomplish with this money, compared with other things we could spend it on (or nothing at all)? Will the proposed campaigns have any positive effect on family outcomes? And if so, would they be better than some other way of spending money, like giving it to poor people, which is what most rich countries do, along with jobs, paid family leave, health care, and preschool education? Specifically, the rationale for spending money on these campaigns assumes that there are people who are on the fence about the success sequence, whose minds might be changed by the campaign, and that those altered decisions would lead to better outcomes in the future for those specific people. There is simply no evidence to support anything like that chain of events. Despite the ad nauseam repetition of the obvious fact that educated, employed, and (much less importantly) married people are less likely to be poor, there is no evidence at all that convincing people who are not one of those things of their importance will cause a reduction in poverty rates.

Given the well-documented desire of most young adults to finish high school, get a job, and get married—if the opportunity to follow that course presents itself—there is no reason to think the people reached by the proposed campaigns would not either already plan to follow the sequence or rightly suspect that it is not feasible for them. The decision to delay childbearing in hopes of marrying first rests on assumptions about the future—education, economics, relationships, health, stability—that the target population simply cannot make about their own destinies in today’s economic and social context. Improve the basic equation, the material expectations of young adults, and you won’t need a campaign to change behavior.

When women have more to lose, they delay parenthood. The college students in my classes, overwhelmingly women (I teach sociology of the family), almost all want to get married and then have children after they finish college. They understand that their marriage prospects will improve after college, and they don’t want children to interfere with their education or career launch. So, why shouldn’t we tell all women, especially those with poorer education and career prospects, to follow this course as well? Success sequencers believe it’s hypocritical to hoard this advice and only dispense it to the children of privilege. But you can’t wish away education, career, and marriage uncertainty or impose order on instability by force of will. If we’re not prepared to guarantee all women the same opportunities as those in my classes have, it’s not reasonable to demand the same attachment to the success sequence that those opportunities make feasible. In the absence of that guarantee, you’re simply asking, or requiring, poor people to delay (until “they’re ready,” in Sawhill’s terms, meaning not poor) or forego having children, one of the great joys of life, and something we should consider a human right.

In addition, what signals will a federal “success sequence” program send? What message will these campaigns send to people who are currently materially underserved by the welfare state, and people who don’t have the option to pursue the sequence because stable partners, education, or jobs aren’t available to them? What message will it send to the majority of Americans who are in a position to look down upon, and act against, those who become, in Sawhill’s chilling phrase, “norm breakers”?

And here race becomes especially salient. Black women have low marriage rates and black single mothers have high poverty rates. They face marriage markets with drastic shortages of eligible men, as Michael Tanner noted in the essay that opened this discussion. Not coincidentally, the history of welfare politics in the United States is intricately bound up with the history of racism against black women, who have been labeled pathological and congenitally dependent. The idea that delaying parenthood until marriage is a choice one makes is highly salient and prized by the white middle class, and the fact that black women often don’t have that choice makes them the objects of scorn for their perceived lax morals. The framing of the success sequence plays into this dynamic. For example, Ron Haskins has argued that welfare reform was needed to “[change] the values and the approach to life of people on welfare that they have to do their part.” The image of the poor welfare “taker” has a race and a gender in America.

In their book, Haskins and Sawhill proudly acknowledge that their cause was out of step with contemporary society. “To those who argue that this goal is old-fashioned or inconsistent with modern culture,” they wrote, “we argue that modern culture is inconsistent with the needs of children.” That may by a reasonable ideological position, but it’s no way to make public policy. The success sequence is a political meme repeated in highly similar form over more than a generation of public policy debates, without yet having any discernible impact for the better. The third “step” or “norm” in particular—marriage—has already been promoted with massive federal subsidies for almost two decades. The first two, education and jobs, are terrific ideas, obvious for good reasons, and not in need of much normative boosting, and we should turn our attention to improving the opportunity for more people to attain them.

The Conversation

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.

Marriage Support Needs Time to Work

Federal efforts to directly strengthen relationships and marriages among lower-income Americans have failed and should be shut down. This is one of Philip Cohen’s arguments in this symposium on the success sequence. He’s making this claim, I suppose, on the force of two evaluations of the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI), which have found that, in the aggregate, the programs studied were not successful in improving the quality or stability of low-income couples’ relationships, especially the unmarried couples served by the initiative.

I share some of Cohen’s concerns about the effectiveness and legitimacy of these initiatives; elsewhere, I’ve expressed reservations about the federal government intervening directly in men’s and women’s relationships. But Cohen did not do justice to the existing literature on the HMI or of interventions like those used within it. For instance, he ignores evidence of modest success for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative in fostering family stability (the longest running local effort working on this issue) and research that found that spending on the HMI was “positively associated with small changes in the percentage of married adults in the population.”

Nevertheless, the implicit standard that Cohen is articulating here is that federally funded programs should be discontinued if (a) they do not show clear and consistent positive results of effectiveness two to three years after implementation (b) in the first round of program evaluation. If the United States had adapted Cohen’s standard a half century ago, this would have resulted in the elimination of scores of federally funded programs that now garner hundreds of billions of dollars every year in public spending—from job training to Head Start. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution noted in his presidential address to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in 2016, “rigorous evaluations of social programs show that most of them do not work.”

I am sure Michael Tanner and the Cato Institute would be happy with the Cohen standard for program elimination. But as for me, I would like to give the various programs associated with the Healthy Marriage Initiative a few more years to demonstrate their potential efficacy, much like we do with the vast majority of federal programs. If there is more consistent evidence of program success in five years, the United States can keep funding them. If not, I would join Cohen and Tanner in urging the Congress to pull the plug on federally funded marriage and relationship education.

Finally, in thinking about public policies and programs designed to strengthen marriage and relationships for lower-income Americans, I think an “analogy to health policy is useful here,” to quote from family scholar Alan Hawkins. In his words,

We know that impoverished circumstances make it much more likely the poor will become overweight. As a society, we must constantly struggle to overcome the inequalities that poverty present. While doing so, however, we should not withhold knowledge and skills about healthy eating and lifestyles. We should treat the poor as resourceful people rather than passive pawns. Similarly, I trust the science of relationships can help many people and even be most helpful to those who struggle daily with the external stresses of poverty. I don’t think it is a stretch here to invoke the language of civil rights – that all people deserve an education about matters that are so crucial to human flourishing.

If it is indeed possible to provide publicly funded relationship education that strengthens the quality and stability of lower-income family life, I would be willing to entertain this kind of case for continuing with the Healthy MarriageInitiative. Only time will tell if sufficient empirical warrant emerges for such a case.

The Marriage Promotion Evidence Is In

In the second round of comments here, Brad Wilcox chose to focus on my argument that marriage promotion doesn’t work—that is, it doesn’t lead to more marriages. I have two brief responses to his comments.

First, Wilcox asserts that I have ignored salient evidence, and he mentions two studies. He writes:

But Cohen did not do justice to the existing literature on the HMI [Healthy Marriage Initiative] or of interventions like those used within it. For instance, he ignores evidence of modest success for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative in fostering family stability (the longest running local effort working on this issue) and research that found that spending on the HMI was “positively associated with small changes in the percentage of married adults in the population” (italics in the original).

However, in my essay I linked to my book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. There I dealt with the subject in much greater depth.

In particular, with regard to the claim that marriage promotion was associated with more marriage, the link is to this study (paywalled) in the journal Family Relations, by Alan Hawkins, Paul Amato, and Andrea Kinghorn. In my book I devote more than two pages to debunking this single study in detail. Since Wilcox appears not inclined to read my analysis in the book, I provide some key excerpts here:

[Hawkins, Amato, and Kinghorn] attempted to show that the marriage promotion money had beneficial effects at the population level.

They statistically compared state marriage promotion funding levels to the percentage of the population that was married and divorced, the number of children living with two parents or one parent, the nonmarital birth rate, and the poverty and near-poverty rates for the years 2000–2010. This kind of study offers an almost endless supply of subjective, post hoc decisions for researchers to make in their search for some relationship that passes the official cutoff for “statistical significance.” Here’s an example of one such choice these researchers made to find beneficial effects (no easy task, apparently): arbitrarily dividing the years covered into two separate periods. Here is their rationale: “We hypothesized that any HMI effects were weaker (or nonexistent) early in the decade (when funding levels were uniformly low) and stronger in the second half of the decade (when funding levels were at their peak).”

This is wrong. If funding levels were low and there was no effect in the early period, and then funding levels rose and effects emerged in the later period, then the analysis for all years should show that funding had an effect; that is the point of the analysis. This decision does not pass the smell test. Having determined that this decision would help them show that marriage promotion was good, they went on to report their beneficial effects, which were “significant” if you allowed them a 90 percent confidence (rather than the customary 95 percent, which is kosher under some house rules).

However, then they admitted their effects were significant only with Washington, D.C., included. Our nonstate capital city is a handy wiggle-room device for researchers studying state-level patterns; you can justify including it because it’s a real place, or you can justify excluding it because it’s not really a state. It turns out that the District of Columbia had per capita marriage promotion funding levels about nine times the average. With an improving family well-being profile during the period under study, this single case (out of fifty-one) could have a large statistical effect on the overall pattern. Statistical outliers are like the levers you learned about in physics—the further they are from the average, the more they can move the pile. To deal with this extreme outlier, they first cut the independent variable in half for D.C., bringing it down to about 4.4 times the mean and a third higher than the next most-extreme state, Oklahoma (itself pretty extreme). That change alone cut the number of significant effects on their outcomes down from six to three.

Then, performing a tragic coup de grâce on their own paper, they removed D.C. from the analysis altogether, and nothing was left. They didn’t quite see it that way, however: “But with the District of Columbia excluded from the data, all of the results were reduced to nonsignificance. Once again, most of the regression coefficients in this final analysis were comparable to those in Table 2 in direction and magnitude, but they were rendered nonsignificant by a further increase in the size of the standard errors.”

Really. These kinds of shenanigans give social scientists a bad name. (Everything that is nonsignificant is that way because of the [relative] size of the standard errors—that’s what nonsignificant means.) And what does “comparable in direction and magnitude” mean, exactly? This is the kind of statement one hopes the peer reviewers or editors would check closely. For example, with D.C. removed, the effect of marriage promotion on two-parent families fell 44 percent, and the effect on the poor/near-poor fell 78 percent. That’s “comparable” in the sense that they can be compared, but not in the sense that they are similar. Again, the authors helpfully explain that “the lack of significance can be explained by the larger standard errors.” That’s just another way of saying their model was ridiculously dependent on D.C. being in the sample and that removing it left them with nothing.

Oh well. Anyway, please keep giving the programs money, and us money for studying them: “In sum, the evidence from a variety of studies with different approaches targeting different populations suggests a potential for positive demographic change resulting from funding of [Marriage and Relationship Education] programs, but considerable uncertainty still remains. Given this uncertainty, more research is needed to determine whether these programs are accomplishing their goals and worthy of continued support.”

In short, this paper provides no evidence that HMI funding increased marriage rates or family wellbeing.

The other link Wilcox provides (“modest success for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative”) goes to an essay on his website by the same Alan Hawkins. The evidence about Oklahoma’s “modest success” in that essay is limited to a broken link to another page on Wilcox’s site, and—I find this hard to even believe—an estimate of the effects of HMI funding in Oklahoma extrapolated from the paper I discussed above! That is, they took the very bad models from that paper and used them to predict how much the funding should have mattered in Oklahoma based on the level of funding there (and remember, Oklahoma was an outlier in that analysis). There was no estimate of the actual effect in Oklahoma. In fact, as I explained in a followup debunking, Oklahoma during this period experienced a greater decline in married-parent families than the rest of the country, even as they sucked up much more than their share of marriage promotion funds. This is, to put it mildly, not good social science. (The Oklahoma program, incidentally, is the subject of an excellent book by Melanie Heath: One Marriage Under God.)

Wilcox also argues that I am too demanding of federal programs, expecting demonstrable success. He concludes, “If the United States had adapted Cohen’s standard a half century ago, this would have resulted in the elimination of scores of federally funded programs that now garner hundreds of billions of dollars every year in public spending—from job training to Head Start.”

Amazingly, because Wilcox has made this argument before, I also addressed it in my book. Specifically, I wrote:

Of course, lots of programs fail. And, specifically, some studies have failed to show that kids whose parents were offered Head Start programs do better in the long run than those whose parents were not. But Head Start is offering a service to parents who want it, a service that most of them would buy on their own if it were not offered free. Head Start might fail at lifting children out of poverty while successfully providing a valuable, need-based service to low-income families.

As you can imagine, I am all for giving free marriage counseling to poor people if they want it (along with lots of other free stuff, including healthcare and childcare). And if they like it and keep using it, I might define that program as a success. But it’s not an antipoverty program.

Finally, in response to the idea that we just need more funding and more research to know if marriage promotion works, here’s my suggestion: in the studies testing marriage promotion programs, have a third group—in addition to the program and control group—who just get the cash equivalent to the cost of the service (a few thousand dollars). Then check to see how well the group getting the cash is doing compared with those getting the service. That’s the measure of whether this kind of policy is a success.

The Family: A Point of Common Ground

I have read Philip Cohen’s essay “The Failure of the Success Sequence.” He obviously feels passionately about its flaws but I think he is attacking a straw person or a straw idea.

I for one have never suggested we don’t need social policies that improve the prospects of the poor to move up the ladder – pre-K, an expanded EITC, a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, and so forth. I have usually framed the discussion in terms of giving people both the means and the motivation to achieve their goals. With respect to marriage, I explicitly critiqued government programs to bring back marriage both in my book, Generation Unbound, and in my New York Times op-ed, appropriately titled “Beyond Marriage.” As the Times piece in particular made clear, I am in favor of marriage but not at all optimistic that marriage is coming back or that the Bush-era marriage agenda worked.

I think instead we need a new norm about purposeful parenthood. (And, yes, I think norms matter.) But it’s also the case that most of the women who are having babies outside marriage understand the norm that’s it’s better to delay until you have finished your education, settled into a steady job, and found a committed partner with whom to raise children. The evidence to me is striking: 60 percent of births to unmarried women under 30 are unintended. That means, according to the women themselves, they are not achieving their own goals. This is especially true of less advantaged women. Their unplanned pregnancy rates are 3 or 4 times as high as those of more advantaged women. Yet we know how to help them. Communities and states, such as Colorado and Delaware, that have made the most effective forms of contraception available to all women at no cost have seen their unplanned pregnancy rates plummet. They have also seen a sharp drop in abortions and in budgetary costs for Medicaid and other social programs.

What we have now, however, is an administration that wants to bring back abstinence, is defunding even well-evaluated and effective teen pregnancy prevention programs, and is rolling back the ACA provision that enabled women to get birth control at no cost. Debating the success sequence in the middle of all of this seems to me like worrying about the deck chairs on the Titanic. But to the extent it has a deeper purpose, I think it goes to how one balances personal and social responsibility. To my way of thinking, we need more of both. Human behavior is way too complicated to assume that just one or the other is sufficient in every case. We are neither angels nor devils but a little bit of both. And values and goals are just as important as programs in helping us navigate the shoals of life.

For this reason, we may disagree on whether adding a social marketing campaign to a broader agenda is a mistake. I don’t see it as sufficient but I also don’t see any harm in it – and I think there are even some potential benefits. Why not try to teach young people about the success sequence? That doesn’t mean lecturing them didactically, but it does mean discussing these issues in a way that will help them think more carefully about trade-offs between their shorter and longer-term goals. Many young people grow up in families and in a peer and media culture where they receive too little reliable information or guidance about different options, whether these be what it takes to get into college, to earn a good living, or how to avoid early, unplanned pregnancy and form a stable family.

In the end, I find it troubling that in these times of real threats to our democracy and our economy we are arguing about the value of education, work, or stable families. As Cohen seems to recognize, they are almost self-evidently valuable. We should be discussing how to raise the revenue needed to pay for such things as education, job training, wage subsidies, child care, and paid leave. Instead we have just given away at least $1.5 trillion over ten years, most of which is a windfall for the rich. If current law is extended in the way many Republicans want, the debt to GDP ratio will exceed 100 percent a decade from now. That’s neither fiscally nor politically stable. In fact, in my view, it’s morally and fiscally bankrupt. In the meantime, strong families are one of the few bulwarks we have against a public agenda gone haywire. Conservatives have long talked about the little platoons that we all depend on in times of stress. I am sticking with them on that issue and with my liberal friends on the need to create more mobility out of poverty.