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The ‘Success Sequence’ is About More Than Economic Outcomes

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In America, success is often interpreted through green eyeshades. Being a “successful businessman” or a “successful lawyer” usually means having a thick wallet. This whiff of materialism isn’t new to 21st century America: “The squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success,’” Harvard’s William James wrote to H.G. Wells in 1906, “is our national disease.”

The word’s association with material wealth may make it an unfortunate label to append to the “Success Sequence,” pioneered by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution, and the topic of a recent report by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Sequence, as far as it goes, is fairly straightforward: If we want to make it easier for children to escape poverty, we should encourage them to get (at least) a high school degree, obtain a full-time job, and marry before having any children (the original book by Brookings included a requirement to wait until 21 to have children).

Tying anti-poverty efforts to education and family formation has led Matt Bruenig, writing at Jacobin magazine, along with other left-leaning commentators, to criticize the Sequence as simplistic, moralistic, and ideologically-driven.

By placing an emphasis on individual agency, critics like Bruenig allege, advocates are ignoring the systemic barriers that prevent low-income youth from being able to hold down a job or start a stable family. The Sequence, it is said, allows the rest of society off the hook while condemning poor kids for not finishing high school, having children out of wedlock, or dropping out of the labor force. “The goalposts will shift constantly, but the conclusion will always remain the same: the poor did this to themselves, and the rich should be spared from higher taxes,” concludes Bruenig.

In place of encouraging work, family, and education, progressive Sequence critics would prefer a more generous welfare system or a restructured economic system. Our nation’s welfare programs need reform – but calling marriage and high school diplomas a “distraction” from safety net efforts, rather than essential supplements that work alongside them, reveals the progressive blind spot. In ridding anti-poverty programs of excess “cultural baggage,” they end up undermining the broader institutional supports that are more likely to lead to more fulfilling and successful, in a broad sense, lives.

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Advocates for the Sequence can get ahead of their skis, such as when former Senator Rick Santorum said that failing to complete the Sequence left children “38 times more likely to end up in poverty.” The specificity and causality aren’t anywhere near that clean, but there is a broad academic literature to back up the idea that these behaviors are associated with better life outcomes. In other words, it’s not just that people who would have been “successful” anyway are selecting into education and marriage, but that there is in fact some difference made by participation in the institutions themselves.

Bruenig disagrees. A smart writer, and a bold one, he recently launched the independently-funded People’s Policy Project to provide social democratic policy analysis. He is right that the bulk of the work being done to pull people out of poverty via the Sequence is, well, work – his own analysis of 2013 Census data found that the poverty rate among households with at least one full-time worker (whose head of household is prime working age and not disabled) is around 5 percent. That would come as no surprise to conservatives who stress the importance of work in welfare programs.

Bruenig might condense the Haskins-Sawhill-Wilcox formula to “work is good, and maximize your earner-to-dependent ratio.” He wants the implication of the Sequence to be an argument for atomized individuals each scraping by, ridding themselves of the encumbrances of minors or dependents (to be clear, this is not his vision for the welfare state, but what he believes the natural evolution of Sequence-influenced thinking becomes). In a post he wrote for Demos, he was even more explicit about his belief in the irrelevance of stable family promotion in welfare programs – “Economic institutions should keep Americans out of poverty, not norms.”

It’s odd, then, that Bruenig is so eager to diminish an institution with economic, social, and personal benefits – marriage – in his attempt to take down the concept of steps out of poverty. Even leaving aside the intangible benefits of marriage, claiming “marriage does not help you except insofar as marrying adds another full-time worker to the family,” as he does, can only be done with Secretariat-size blinders on. In progressive anti-poverty circles, you tend to hear this kind of claim a lot – “What do you get when one poor person marries another poor person? Two people in poverty.”

This is obtuse. There are inherent economic benefits and efficiencies that come from joining two households together under the auspices of the law and the church. The marginal cost of a second renter is far less than the cost of two individuals renting separately. Food can be bought cheaper in bulk, savings consolidated, and study after study has shown that marriage boosts wages for men by making them work harder and take on more responsibility.

The evidence on family structure on outcomes for children is convincing as well. While there clearly there are no truly random experiments on the impact of marriage on child well-being, an emerging scholarly consensus is forming around the inherent benefits for children from the stable households formed by marriage.

“Using statistical methods that mimic key aspects of experimental designs, researchers have been able to make a strong case that marriage has causal impacts on outcomes such as children’s schooling, their social and emotional adjustment, and their employment, marriage, and mental health as adults,” wrote a researcher in a 2015 journal published by Princeton University.

Income inequality has grown hand-in-hand with assortative mating and coincided with diverging trends in household formation and income. If you don’t want to take social scientists’ word for it, that’s fine. But the burden of proof lies on those who want to argue marriage is not economically beneficial to households.

The opposition to the Sequence, then, is at least partly a question of ideology and emphasis. It doesn’t tell us any more than what common sense would dictate – earning a living is the best way to keep you out of poverty, education is the best way to acquire said job, and having an unstable family life can throw up roadblocks. As Vox pointed out, in 2007 only 3.4 million, or 1 percent of Americans, weren’t fulfilling at least one of those basic parameters.

To the extent that structural causes make it difficult to pursue education, work, or family, people of good will on all sides should be willing to root those out. The question is not whether we should be promoting these values as something people should want, because they clearly already do. The focus should be on how to make them easier to attain.

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When Santorum brought up the ‘sequence’ during the 2012 campaign, Dylan Matthews, then of Wonkblog, interviewed academics who studiously weighed in on the difference between statistical shorthand and the real world. “It’s just not as simple” as personal choice, Matthews wrote, quoting Georgetown professor Harry Holzer. “When people make a statement like that they act like people have perfect control over things like that.”

“Just running around telling people to work hard and get married isn’t a serious proposal,” Matthews, now at Vox, writes. But whatever “serious proposal” Matthews would love to see to prop up employment and wages would be adrift without being set in a broader context of a desire for true “success,” and not just the material kind.

Public policy is not a series of antiseptic implements, but have values and goals wrapped up in how they are sold, built, and implemented. Policy levers are never free of philosophical underpinning. Policy can, and should, be shaped in a direction that makes it easier for individuals to have children inside of a family and to have skills that allow them to make a living.

If success sequence advocates lead policy proposals and messaging in a direction that orients those tools towards education and marriage, who, exactly, is harmed by them?

In response, Bruenig would prefer that “our welfare state [be] designed to ensure that nobody is in poverty and that people can form the families they would like,” through such means as a universal basic income. Progressives inherently favor using governmental methods to achieve desirable societal outcomes, and no one disagrees about the desirability of lower poverty rates. But that inclination predisposes them to favor more layers of government policy to redress questions of meaning, vocation, and relationship that no amount of boosterism for a universal basic income or creation of another alphabet-soup welfare program can solve.

The goals of the Sequence – studying a craft, learning, becoming a spouse or committed parent – are all inherently worthy of pursuit. Even if they did nothing to advance a single person’s economic outcomes, they would be worthwhile to promote. (As it is, the evidence suggests that they are not only meaningful in and of themselves, but help a person’s bottom line.)

There’s another progressive tell is in the second part of his sentence – so “people can form the families they like.” Conservatives have been leading the charge to reduce marriage penalties in the tax code, so if Bruenig will join in common cause to reduce disincentives to forming stable families, we are in agreement. But forming the families they like often includes children, who are best served by a stable home life. No amount of cold hard cash is going to offer a kid the same stability and socioemotional benefits of avoiding a revolving door of live-in boyfriends. The ideological predisposition to downplay marriage ignores the fact that for a successful family life, including marriage in the Sequence has benefits for the partners and even bigger ones for their children.

That’s not to say marriage is a golden ticket out of material poverty – half of the couples living in poverty in the U.S. are married. But education is also an uncertain predictor of economic success – seven out of every 10 Americans in poverty in 2012 were high school graduates. The overblown claims that that education and marriage are able to reduce your chance of poverty to 1 in 50 need to be scaled back. But so too should the critical stances that treat them as incidental to the pursuit of “success.”

If Bruenig et al want to argue that these are not high-quality findings of strict causality, I agree. But the argument that it is somehow deleterious or superfluous to encourage middle-class mores in the pursuit of middle-class standards smacks of willful blindness. But if we understand the Sequence as a set of correlations with a life well lived – a “successful” life, writ large – then the steps of the Sequence seem less a series of “cultural beefs,” as Bruenig alleges, but a set of behaviors to encourage.

To play in the NFL, you should have quick reflexes, a tireless work ethic, and tremendous upper body strength. If you have these three qualities, you’re not guaranteed to play for the Cowboys. But if you don’t, you’re almost guaranteed not to.

The goals of the Sequence are much more difficult to reach if you come from a poor family, attend a sub-par school, have children as a teenager, get involved with the criminal justice system, or a whole host of social ills. But that doesn’t make those goals less worth pursuing or encouraging.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a graduate student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.