The Success Sequence Is About Cultural Beefs Not Poverty

This post was originally intended for the launch of the People’s Policy Project website. But as that is running behind schedule, I figure I will post it here.

The Success Sequence is back! The ad-hoc anti-poverty process first endorsed by Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institute has been picked up by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang at AEI. George Will also recently mailed in a column on the topic by doing a rewrite of the AEI product. I’ve written before about some of the problems with this particular framework, but in light of this new push, it is worth rehashing them here.

The Curious Case of the Different Success Sequences
If you are a long-time observer of the Success Sequence community (like I am), you may have noticed something a little strange about it. Though everyone in this community claims they are interested in the same anti-poverty process, in reality, each publication defines the Success Sequence somewhat differently. And those differences tell you a lot about what actually motivates the folks who push this concept.

For Sawhill and Haskins, the Success Sequence consists of the following five rules (they express them as three rules, but their third rule is a compound rule that I prefer to break up):

  1. Graduate high school.
  2. Get a full-time job.
  3. Get married before having children.
  4. Wait until at least age 21 to get married.
  5. Wait until at least age 21 to have children.

In their AEI paper, Wilcox and Wang claim to be using the Sawhill and Haskins Success Sequence and even cite to their work. But they aren’t actually. The Wilcox and Wang Success Sequence has only three rules:

  1. Graduate high school.
  2. Get a full-time job.
  3. Get married before having children.

Rules four and five, the delay-marriage and delay-parenting rules, are gone! What happened to them? How could such an oversight have been made?

The answer is pretty obvious. Wilcox dropped the delay-marriage and delay-parenting rules because they do not mesh with his particular conservative worldview. His cultural and religious commitments make him uncomfortable advocating for the delay of marriage and childbirth. So he doesn’t.

Sawhill and Haskins have no similar compunction. In fact, Sawhill so loves delaying childbirth that she has spent the last few years of her professional life advocating that we fight poverty by giving poor women free IUDs so that they don’t have poor children, a borderline-eugenic proposal that oddly attracted praise from some prominent liberals.

This discrepancy between Haskins/Sawhill and Wilcox/Wang reveals that many of the rules of the Success Sequence are just the tacked-on cultural preferences of the authors. The rules to delay marriage and parenting after age 21 do not really do anything to cut down on poverty, which is why Wilcox can easily drop them and still arrive at a low-poverty rate for Success Sequence followers.

But the delay rules do not actually cut down poverty because none of the rules provide meaningful poverty reduction after you have applied the full-time work rule. The authors in the Success Sequence community smuggle their cultural views into the anti-poverty debate by embedding them into a sequence with full-time work, which drives nearly all of the low-poverty outcomes that they find. When their superfluous cultural preferences collide with one another, they end up coming up with different Success Sequences.

Trying to promote your cultural views as the panacea to poverty is a smart strategic move. It brings attention to your cause in excess of what it would otherwise get. Just look at the education reform folks who have been doing the same thing for decades. But one does have to wonder how a teenager reading this literature will be able to figure out which set of competing cultural preferences swirling around in the Success Sequence community constitutes the One True Success Sequence.

Work Does All of the Work
I noted this briefly in the prior section, but it deserves further explanation. You can demonstrate (as I have) that full-time work is responsible for the low-poverty results of the various Success Sequences. But you don’t even need to do that. It’s perfectly obvious if you just think about it for a second.

A full-time worker who is paid the $7.25 minimum wage has an annual income of $15,080. If they live alone, the poverty line for their one-person family is $12,486. Since $15,080 is greater than $12,486, no full-time worker who lives alone is in poverty, at least as poverty is measured in the official statistics. What this means is: a person can only be in poverty (1) if they do not work full time or (2) if they live with other people who do not work full time.

If the Success Sequence was not just a vehicle for litigating cultural beefs, what it would really say is that individuals wanting to minimize their risk of poverty should work full time and live alone. Or, if individuals insist on living with others, they should only live with other full-time workers, such as in a double-income-no-kid (DINK) arrangement. Stay away from children, individuals with a work-limiting disability, elderly people, students, unpaid family carers, and those prone to joblessness. If you keep these types of people out of your household and make sure you work full time, you will never be in poverty. That’s the truth.

Despite what the Success Sequence says, marriage does not help you except insofar as marrying adds another full-time worker to the family. If it does not do that because the person you are marrying has a disability or some other work limitation, then marriage will actually increase your risk of poverty.

A high school degree does not do much for you either. It might help you get a higher wage, but minimum wage keeps you out of poverty anyways. A minimum wage could leave you in poverty if you have dependents you are caring for (such as children), and in those cases a higher wage driven by a high school degree might pull you out of poverty. But if you have found yourself in a household with dependents, you are already ignoring the most correct wisdom about staying out of poverty, which is to never live with non-workers.

To be clear, I am not actually saying people should pursue a life where they either live alone or only with other full-time workers. My personal view here is that our economic institutions, and especially our welfare state, should be designed to ensure that nobody is in poverty and that people can form the families they would like. But in our current economic system, it is the no-dependent lifestyle described above that actually minimizes your risk of poverty, not the lifestyle envisioned by the Success Sequence.

What About the System?
Success Sequence writing, like so much other writing on poverty, proceeds by cherry-picking some characteristics that are more prevalent among those in poverty and then identifying those characteristics as the “causes” of poverty. In the case of the Success Sequence, the causes are low work activity, low education, no marriage, or insufficient delaying of childbirth and marriage. But it could be anything. Find some variable, do a regression, and you have finally proved where poverty comes from.

The problem with this type of theorizing is that it ignores the role of the system. Any given cause you identify can only result in poverty if the economic system allows it to do so. Thus, in all cases, the way we have set up the economic system to distribute income in society is a necessary cause of any observed poverty.

This might seem like a cute point, but it is not. Few would quibble with it if we were debating health uninsurance rather than poverty. Just like with poverty, you can find all sorts of things that are correlated with high rates of health uninsurance, including low work activity, low education, and so on. But if someone were to say something like “single motherhood is responsible for health uninsurance,” the most obvious response would be “only in America.” Not in Canada, where everyone has insurance. Not in the UK, where everyone has insurance. Not anywhere in the developed world where universal health care is the norm.

Just as we can set up our system to ensure nobody is without health insurance, we can also set it up to insure that nobody has an income level below the poverty line, if we want to.

The Garbage Generation?
As a final note, I think it would be fun to ask ourselves how many people have followed the Success Sequence throughout history. If this really is a standalone indicator of virtue, rather than a contemporary backfilled set of cultural grievances calibrated to blame the poor for their plight, then surely it will have some sort of universal applicability. At minimum, surely it would describe the typical behavior of people in our own country just a few decades ago, right?

Wrong!

Remember the first prong of the Success Sequence is to graduate high school. In 1940, three-fourths of adults aged 25 and over lacked a high school degree. Even as late as 1966, the majority of adults had no such degree. Was the Greatest Generation really the Garbage Generation?

Young parenting, discouraged by Sawhill/Haskins but not Wilcox/Wang, was also far more prevalent in the past than now. The CDC data only goes back to 1970, but in that year, the mean age of first birth was 21.4. This means that nearly half of the women in that period were violating the delay-childbirth rule.

One might respond to this point by saying those were different times. That was then. This is now. But this is precisely my point. What we have in the Success Sequence is not some kind of time-immemorial wisdom about how to live a virtuous life. Indeed, if the Success Sequence were applied backward in time, it would conclude that almost everyone who has ever lived in the world is an immoral wreck.

Instead of providing generalizable guidance about the good life, what the Success Sequence does is offer up a totally ad-hoc set of rules that are plausible enough within the context of contemporary lifestyles to allow conservatives to say personal failures are the cause of poverty in society. When contemporary lifestyles change, the Success Sequence will have to be rewritten because it will sound just as absurd as the current Success Sequence would sound to Americans in the middle of the last century.

Fifty years from now, conservatives will write op-eds saying the real trick to staying out of poverty is a college degree, cohabitation, and delaying child birth to age 30. No Success Sequence will stay around if it stops describing most middle class lives or if it begins to describe too many poor lives. 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.

  • billsallak

    Thanks for the post; agree with 99.9% of what you write here.
    Regarding first-birth age, minor statistical quibble, seeking clarification: if you’re making a claim about what nearly half of women did at a certain point in time, shouldn’t you be talking about median ages instead of mean ages? Curious to see if median is significantly different from mean in this case. Cheers!

  • Eric Swisher

    Based on the central limit theorem, the larger your sample size, the closer to normal the sample will be. So since we’re talking about a sample size of a few million, it’s fair to assume the sample is approximately normal, in which case mean = median. Valid concern though.

  • The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

    John Kenneth Galbraith

  • Tom

    The modern progressive is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in
    moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification
    for lording over others and telling them how to live their lives.

  • theAmericanist

    Derivative, shallow, and without wit: D-.

  • Tom

    Blame the source material: a fact-free, ahistorical jibe.

  • theAmericanist

    LOL — nope. Clearly, you’re at fault for being a dope.

    Here’s a hint: Lord Keynes is often tagged by conservatives for being the epitome of big government, big spending, anti-market economics, while folks like von Mises or Hayek are considered folks with a true insight into market capitalism.

    Yet it was Keynes who made bank with his own money, accurately predicting (and placing bets) what world finance would do in the 1920s, generally after telling various ministers of finance why what they were doing would fail — and how. Since they refused to take his advice, he’d invest in their folly: and became quite rich, and thus completely independent. He needed no sponsors.

    Von Mises, Hayek, et al — were kept men. They were not rich; their whole careers were supported by rich folks, which is a reason why Keynes’ insight (quoted above) has bite.

    You? Yours doesn’t even have gums.

  • Tom

    Who said anything about Keynes et al.?

  • theAmericanist

    My bad — the quote was Galbraith.

  • Contrafactum is the sincerest form of envy.

  • Tom

    Blame the source material: a fact-free, ahistorical jibe by a snob extraordinaire.

  • neroden

    Unfortunately, John Kenneth Galbraith is 100% right. This article is one of many such examples proving it.

    Ever read _The Great Crash, 1929_? You might learn something.

  • OldScold

    Oh, that’s too complicated. We progressives simply look at rich people and observe they have too much money and need to have it taken away. They can live how they want, just with less money.

  • Marty Johnson

    Actually, waiting to have children until you are thirty is stupid for the woman. Her peak fertility starts to decrease at 25, and starts to fall off precipitously after thirty.Yes, the success sequence works, within reason. But if you do everything correctly but still spend more than you make, it won’t work. Whether you cohabit until thirty or live on your own until you are fifty. The true secret to success is to live within your means and to save money.

  • brucej

    Which success is only possible if your means provide enough to live on and save money.

  • Marty Johnson

    You are nuts if you think you can’t live within your means. Can’t afford to live where you are at on what you make? MOVE. You do not need that big fine car, you don’t need to eat out 5 x a week, you don’t need all those clothes. You just think you do.

  • Swami_Binkinanda

    PUll youself up by the bootstraps move to mumbai and become an untouchable, says marty johnson. Don’t try to change your circumstances here lest you violate the sequence, our sacred normative statement.

  • Marty Johnson

    Awww, somebody too stupid to get ahead. Sorry lil guy, but Barry ain’t presidunce anymore, so it is either work or don’t eat.

  • neroden

    Yeah, you’ll be starving soon enough. Non-billionaire Republicans are invariably dependent on Big Government for support. You’ll be very startled when it goes away.

  • Benkai_Debussy

    This might be a little tricky for you to understand, but it is quite literally impossible for everyone to make a good living. Society will continue to need roughly the same portion of low-paid jobs (like retail, food service, etc), so even if good advice might help a single person, it’s dumb to apply to the nation as a whole. Roughly the same percent of the country will live in poverty regardless of the personal decisions they make.

    Also, using your logic white men are objectively superior to other demographics. After all, you think that success is mostly just determined by how skilled and pragmatic a person is, right? If that’s the case, then there’s no other explanation for certain demographics making dramatically less money than them being innately inferior (because if they weren’t you’d see roughly the same income distribution across populations, at least according to what you’re saying).

    I know you value the idea of being a realistic and rational person, but sometimes a person needs to admit they’re wrong and believe some dumb things. I also believed some really goofy stuff when I was younger, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  • vicomtepicabia

    “The true secret to success is to live within your means and to save money”

    And don’t get sick. Don’t be disabled. Don’t have disabled people as members of your family. Don’t make mistakes. Etc.

  • Lordwhorfin

    I.e.-be lucky. If you’re luckless, well OF COURSE you’ll be a peasant.

  • brucej

    Or don’t be non-white. Or a woman. Or a non-white woman https://nwlc.org/resources/equal-pay-for-black-women/

  • Spill_Erix

    Just be born to rich parents.

  • vintermann

    Even then, this is really the subsistence sequence, not the success sequence.

  • MCarson

    The big jump in 1st child is related to the recession. I’ve 3 daughters who have been delaying children bc economy. They want to pay off debt first, etc.

  • theAmericanist

    Maybe I misunderstood, but this seems like bullshit.

    First, the distinction between the first sequence (with five steps), and the simplified one, with just three, is pretty small. Most folks who graduate high school, get a job, and then get married are pretty likely to be past 21 if and when they have kids: dropping the “until 21” is just editing. You’re making waaaay too much out of it. But that’s typical of your whole essay.

    Second, you’re flat out dishonest: “If the Success Sequence was not just a vehicle for litigating cultural beefs, what it would really say is that individuals wanting to minimize their risk of poverty should work full time and live alone.”

    Nope. The Sequence does NOT recommend against getting married (which is what “live alone” means, d’uh). It indicates that marriage helps most when it comes AFTER high school and full time work.

    The Sequence is just that — a Sequence. It’s SUPPOSED to be ad hoc. (SMH) It simply describes a clearly observed phenomenon — that folks who get a high school degree (in 2017, which you have barely and only grudgingly noticed, is not much like 1945), and only THEN get a full time job (which means that they’re not trying to support themselves by working full-time while still in high school), and only AFTER that, get married and have kids (or have kids and get married, YMMV), tend not to live in poverty.

    Your claim that the only thing which matters is working full-time is bogus. You leave more out than you accuse Sequence writers of doing — for example, it seems reasonable to conclude other factors are involved when somebody winds up working full time BEFORE they get a GED. I’ve never seen anybody claim that, as a prescription, the Sequence is anything more than a description, a kind of rule of thumb. When somebody winds up supporting a spouse and a kid with a full time job before they graduate high school, they are more likely to live in poverty: you don’t disagree, you just have nothing useful to say.

    If nothing else, somebody who goes back to school after starting to work full time indicates a certain amount (and kind) of ambition that is not obvious in somebody who works full time and does not get their high school diploma. That’s not a moral judgment; it’s how social observation is DONE. The hill for them to climb is steeper — another observation you don’t dispute, but about which you have no insight.

    Basically, you’re complaining that the current Sequence works now, but it wouldn’t have worked under other historical circumstances. No kidding? Got any other great and useless insights?

    Oh, wait, you do: “A high school degree does not do much for you either. It might help you get a higher wage, but minimum wage keeps you out of poverty anyways.”

    Cuz that’s what you want — lots of people who can’t get a wage higher than the floor set by law?

  • observ

    “Nope. The Sequence does NOT recommend against getting married (which is what “live alone” means, d’uh).”

    Read the text again please. Bruenig’s point is that if the SS truly aimed to tracked the safest path to non-poverty then it would advice working full time and live alone. But it doesn’t. Which shows that it isn’t what it is claimed to be. It is just another rehash of blaming individuals for the problems caused by a hierarchical system.

  • theAmericanist

    LOL — here’s a clue, which somehow you managed to avoid learning in grammar school: people speak for themselves.

    That is, if you don’t like what someone says but cannot refute it, you don’t get to say something ELSE, attribute it to them, and refute that instead — cuz it’s easier, and evidently you’re both stoooopid and dishonest.

    That’s not how this sorta thing works.

    The Sequence isn’t tracking the surest (better word than “safest”, another indication you are profoundly shallow) way to avoid poverty. (The surest way to avoid poverty is to choose rich parents: d’uh.) It’s describing a clearly observable fact — folks who graduate high school, THEN get married and only AFTER that have kids, are much less likely to be poor.

    Read that again, being as how we’ve established that you’re stoooopid. Doubtless it will take you several readings to catch on.

    What Bruenig is trying to do, is to make a vast and amorphous argument about culture that the facts simply cannot sustain. The more anybody intelligent thinks about his ‘argument’, such as it is, or seeks facts that are relevant, the less sense it makes.

    That’s why I noted how grudgingly he concedes that 1940 isn’t like 2017 — and yet, he says, people who didn’t graduate from high school in 1940 but got married and had kids anyway, weren’t THAT likely to live in poverty compared to folks who don’t follow the Sequence now.

    LOL — I shall be kind to you, and merely suggest you contemplate the spectacularly bad logic in that argument before you speak in public again.

  • neroden

    Bruenig is making a completely accurate point. And he proved it — stone cold proved it.

    Anyone who’s claiming that there’s a “success sequence”… is just piling up their own cultural bigotry.

    If you work full time (which requires being healthy, being able to find a job, etc.) and don’t have non-working dependents, you will not be in poverty. This is a mathematical result of the minimum wage and the definition of the poverty level.

    And the rest of this “Success Sequences” (either version) is completely bogus. All the other stuff is extraneous, becuase that’s enough to determine whether you’re poor.

  • theAmericanist

    LOL — you’re not very good at this. Try to FOCUS:

    1) If Bruenig was simply trying to make a point about poverty, your argument would be valid. Since he wasn’t, it isn’t. (See how logic works?)

    2) What Bruenig IS doing is attempting a larger point that promptly fails, only you’re too dumb to notice. His claim is that the Sequence is about culture, rather than economics (which is arguably true), and THEREFORE is bad economics (which is demonstrably false, as well as being illogical).

    3) What you’ve just done is a tautology — ‘if you work full time AND don’t have non-working dependents, then you won’t be in poverty’. No kidding? Did you work that out yourself, or do you consult kindergarteners for analysis?

    4) The Sequence is ABOUT people who have non-working dependents — or, more precisely, it describes what happens when people take specific, significant steps so that when they HAVE non-working dependents, e.g., young children or significant others who are unable to work full-time, often because they are raising young children, they will have enough income from their full-time jobs to cover costs.

    LOL — dayum, you folks have Shire-horse scale blinders on. That’s why I noted Bruenig’s bogus claim : “A high school degree does not do much for you either. It might help you get a higher wage, but minimum wage keeps you out of poverty anyways.”

    And you’re fucking stooopid enough to double down on it: “If you work full time (which requires being healthy, being able to find a job, etc.) and don’t have non-working dependents, you will not be in poverty.”

    (speaking slowly, enunciating clearly) My response to him speaks to your imbecility: Cuz that’s what you want — lots of people who can’t get a wage higher than the floor set by law?

  • Benkai_Debussy

    Regarding #3, the whole point is that it’s obvious. The Success Sequence would technically be accurate even if it only included the “Work full-time” step. All the other steps are unnecessary, since the full-time work step is what’s actually causing the lion’s share of the difference in economic outcomes, particularly if you’re just looking at whether someone lives in poverty. The other steps might also have some influence, but the same is true for countless other conditions you could devise. I’m sure going to college and getting a degree in accounting also decreases the chance of living in poverty.

    So, if the point of the steps is to point out the factors that have the greatest influence on whether someone will live in poverty, #2 alone (full-time work) would suffice.

  • theAmericanist

    That’s not true.

    The reason for the Sequence — which, I keep emphasizing, is simply a fact to be observed, which even Bruenig doesn’t dispute — is that when people have kids, get a job, get married, and THEN graduate high school, (or the various other narratives of those events out of Sequence) the fact that they wind up having non-working dependents (the kids and sometimes the spouse) means that they are in poverty EVEN WITH a full-time, minimum wage job.

    Read that again, cuz it’s obscured by your Shire-horse scale blinders.

    SMH — y’all really are a marvelous example of how ideology and motive evade facts.

    F’r example, the reason I quoted Bruenig complaining that if somebody WITHOUT non-working dependents has a minimum wage full-time job, so long as they are healthy, they won’t (technically) be poor, is precisely because he’s daydreaming about a world where his ideology works After all, so long as somebody is working full time at a minimum wage job and has no kids and no spouse and no health issues, pointing out that life involves a bit more than that is just The Man with his Cultural oppression, right?

    No wonder the only people who take you guys seriously are…. you guys. (And me, since I’m bothering to refute the irreducibly ridiculous stuff you accept, effortlessly.)

    One more time — the Sequence is simply a fact that can be observed: when people graduate high school, get a full-time job, get married, and have kids IN THAT ORDER, they are almost never poor.

    If you had bothered to use your opportunity for education to learn the sound techniques for thinking that have been developed since ancient Egypt and China (that meanspirited Cultural oppression thing of knowing what one is talking about while 實事求是), you’d realize that the Sequence may simply be an artifact or indication of other facts — a description, more than a prescription. The qualities of patient ambition, of prudence in decisions, self-discipline — which are probably the real cultural characteristics you’re afraid of, since you don’t show ’em in your thinking — may be the real drivers that keep people out of poverty. They may simply be indicated by the Sequence of high school, then employment, then establishing a family on that firm foundation.

    But y’all aren’t simply ill-informed and illogical, you’re stoooopid. First Bruenig altered the Sequence because he wasn’t sufficiently honest — lacked the self-discipline — to get it right: since it does NOT recommend rejecting marriage, but only delaying it, he changed it to insist it had to mean: ‘don’t get married’.

    AP high school kids flunk Logic 101 doing that shit. (He also committed the elementary logical error of claiming that because the Sequence is cultural — which, I note, is arguably true — it must also be bad Economics, which is demonstrably false.)

    He insisted that since the Sequence works in 2017, the 2017 model must also have worked in 1940. That’s just pitiful.

    And now you come along to REPEAT the easily refuted observation that the Sequence must mean the only thing that matters is full-time employment above minimum wage, which EXPLICITLY leave out the fucking point of the Sequence: folks who graduate high school, get jobs, get married, AND have kids — perhaps you should go back even further, and consider how the birds and the bees work. (Has no one told you?)

    See, folks like that HAVE non-working dependents. You can look it up.