Eve Tushnet’s recent critique of the "success sequence" succinctly argues that the message of the sequence “takes a misguided approach to a misidentified problem.” While Tushnet’s arguments are interesting, they are a bit misguided at points—as many readers of this blog will no doubt agree.
I share her (and Helen Andrew’s) concern about moral claims being "translated into material terms,” what Andrews terms “bloodless moralism.” One of the great failings of both major political parties is that they’re blatantly materialistic, determining wellbeing by income levels and not everything else that really matters in life — e.g. one’s emotional, spiritual, and relational health. The simple truth is that people of modest means often flourish while people of great wealth often do not. And when that’s true, it's because the deeper, non-material needs of the person of modest means are being met and those of the wealthy are not. Wealth is not always evidence of virtue and poverty is not always evidence of vice.
That said, if we believe that poverty often entails significant levels of suffering, then we have a moral responsibility to at least give a framework for avoiding it. It seems as if Tushnet is assuming people are using the success sequence to lecture kids and young adults without taking into consideration the conditions that may have prevented them from successfully navigating the sequence — things like abject poverty, lack of access to a quality education or jobs, inattentive parents, poor marriage role models, high crime rates, and more.
Far from “bloodless moralism,” the success sequence is a simple way to communicate complex realities and leverage resources to bring about positive community change.
At the Georgia Center for Opportunity, we do not believe these can be addressed simply by saying, “Graduate. Get a job. Get married.” Instead of lecturing, we seek to apply the success sequence practically. We use it to help community leaders create conditions where more people will graduate, find work, and delay childbearing until after marriage. These leaders appreciate the help because it empowers them to focus resources on addressing the underlying causes of poverty.
For example, in Gwinnett County, GA, business, faith, and non-profit leaders have joined together to form two different working groups—one focused on creating employment opportunities for the chronically underemployed and the other dedicated to providing relationship education resources to young adults. Another effort is underway to increase apprenticeship programs for high school students.
When leaders speak of the success sequence with teens and young adults, it’s in the context of helping them achieve one or all of items in the sequence. Of particular benefit is the fact that the success sequence is—stating the obvious—sequential, not simultaneous. For the individual facing the complex realities of climbing out of poverty, it’s helpful to imagine dealing with one step of the sequence at a time, not all at once.
Moreover, we should never “give up” on those who have already missed one or more steps in the sequence. Instead, we should recognize that each component of the sequence works to help individuals. For one person that could mean earning a GED, for another pursuing job training, and for another seeking help and resources to form a strong and stable marriage. The bottom line is this: the success sequence helps community leaders focus resources, and it helps kids and young adults focus their energy. Far from “bloodless moralism,” it is a simple way to communicate complex realities and leverage resources to bring about positive community change.
Randy Hicks is president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO), an independent, non-partisan organization that conducts public policy research and mobilizes community resources to create opportunities for a quality education, fulfilling work, and healthy family life.