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.
Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.