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  • The success sequence isn’t merely a powerful recipe for avoiding poverty. It is a recipe easy enough for almost any adult to understand and follow. Tweet This
  • Even if the “work does all the work” criticism were statistically true, it misses the point: Single parenthood makes it very hard to work full-time. Tweet This

If you live in the First World, there is a simple and highly effective formula for avoiding poverty:

  1. Finish high school.
  2. Get a full-time job once you finish school.
  3. Get married before you have children.

Researchers call this formula the “success sequence.” Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill got the ball rolling with their book Creating an Opportunity Society, calling for a change in social norms to “bring back the success sequence as the expected path for young Americans.”  The highest-quality research on this success sequence to date probably comes from Wendy Wang and Brad Wilcox. In their Millennial Success Sequence, they observe:

97% of Millennials who follow what has been called the “success sequence”—that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order—are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34).

One common criticism is that full-time work does almost all the work of the success sequence. Even if you drop out of high school and have five kids with five different partners, you’ll probably avoid poverty as long as you work full-time. Wilcox and Wang disagree:

…This analysis is especially relevant since some critics of the success sequence have argued that marriage does not matter once education and work status are controlled.

The regression results indicate that after controlling for a range of background factors, the order of marriage and parenthood in Millennials’ lives is significantly associated with their financial well-being in the prime of young adulthood. Simply put, compared with the path of having a baby first, marrying before children more than doubles young adults’ odds of being in the middle or top income. Meanwhile, putting marriage first reduces the odds of young adults being in poverty by 60% (vs. having a baby first).

But even if the “work does all the work” criticism were statistically true, it misses the point: Single parenthood makes it very hard to work full-time.

A more agnostic criticism doubts causation. Sure, poverty correlates with failure to follow the success sequence. How, though, do we know that the so-called success sequence actually causes success? It’s not like we run experiments where we randomly assign lifestyles to people. The best answer to this challenge, frankly, is that causation is obvious. “Dropping out, idleness, and single parenthood make you poor” is on par with “burning money makes you poor.” The demand for further proof of the obvious is a thinly-veiled veto of unpalatable truths.

A very different criticism, however, challenges the perceived moral premise behind the success sequence. What is this alleged moral premise? Something along the lines of: “Since people can reliably escape poverty with moderately responsible behavior, the poor are largely to blame for their own poverty, and society is not obliged to help them.” Or perhaps simply, “The success sequence shifts much of the moral blame for poverty from broad social forces to individual behavior.” While hardly anyone explicitly uses the success sequence to argue that we underrate the blameworthiness of the poor for their own troubles, critics still hear this argument loud and clear–and vociferously object.

Thus, Eve Tushnet writes:

To me, the success sequence is an example of what Helen Andrews dubbed “bloodless moralism”…

All bloodless moralisms conflate material success and virtue, presenting present successful people as moral exemplars. And this, like “it’s better to have a diploma than a GED,” is something virtually every poor American already believes: that escaping poverty proves your virtue and remaining poor is shameful.

Brian Alexander similarly remarks:

The appeal of the success sequence, then, appears to be about more than whether it’s a good idea. In a society where so much of one’s prospects are determined by birth, it makes sense that narratives pushing individual responsibility—narratives that convince the well-off that they deserve what they have—take hold.

Cato’s Michael Tanner says much the same:

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.

Strikingly, the leading researchers of the success sequence seem to agree with the critics! Wang and Wilcox write:

We do not take the view that the success sequence is simply a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” strategy that individuals adopt on their own. Rather, for many, the “success sequence” does not exist in a cultural vacuum; it’s inculcated by an interlocking cultural array of ideals, norms, expectations, and knowledge.*

This is a strange state of affairs. Everyone–even the original researchers–insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty. And since I’m writing a book called Poverty: Who To Blame, I beg to differ.

Consider this hypothetical. Suppose the success sequence discovered that people could only reliably avoid poverty by finishing a Ph.D. in engineering, working 80 hours a week, and practicing lifelong celibacy. What would be the right reaction? Something along the lines of, “Then we shouldn’t blame people for their own poverty, because self-help is just too damn hard.”

The underlying moral principle: You shouldn’t blame people for problems they have no reasonable way to avoid. You shouldn’t blame them if avoiding the problem is literally impossible; nor should you blame them if they can only avoid the problem by enduring years of abject misery.

The flip side, though, is that you should blame people for problems they do have a reasonable way to avoid. And the steps of the success sequence are eminently reasonable. This is especially clear in the United States. American high schools have low standards, so almost any student who puts in a little effort will graduate. Outside of severe recessions, American labor markets offer ample opportunities for full-time work. And since cheap, effective contraception is available, people can easily avoid having children before they are ready to support them.

These realizations are probably the main reason why talking about the success sequence so agitates the critics. The success sequence isn’t merely a powerful recipe for avoiding poverty. It is a recipe easy enough for almost any adult to understand and follow.

But can’t we still blame society for failing to foster the bourgeois values necessary to actually adhere to the success sequence? Despite the popularity of this rhetorical question, my answer is an unequivocal no. In ordinary moral reasoning, virtually no one buys such attempts to shift blame for individual misdeeds to “society.”

Suppose, for example, that your spouse cheats on you. When caught, he objects, “I come from a broken home, so I didn’t have a good role model for fidelity, so you shouldn’t blame me.” Not very morally convincing, is it?

Similarly, suppose you hire a worker, and he steals from you. When you catch him, he protests, “Don’t blame me. Blame racism.” How do you react? Poorly, I bet.

Or imagine that you brother drinks his way into homelessness. When you tell him he has to reform if he wants your help, he denounces your “bloodless moralism.” Are you still obliged to help him? Really?

Finally, imagine you’re a juror on a war crimes trial. A soldier accused of murdering a dozen children says, “It was war, I’m a product of my violent circumstances.” Could you in good conscience exonerate him?

So what? We should place much greater confidence in our concrete moral judgments than in grand moral theories. This is moral reasoning 101. And virtually all of our concrete moral judgments say that we should blame individuals–not “society”–for their own bad behavior. When wrongdoers point to broad social forces that influenced their behavior, the right response is, “Social forces influence us all, but that’s no excuse. You can and should have done the right thing despite your upbringing, racism, love of drink, or violent circumstances.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should pretend that individuals are morally responsible for their own actions to give better incentives. What I’m saying, rather, is that individuals really are morally responsible for their actions. Better incentives are just icing on the cake.

This is not my eccentric opinion. As long as we stick to concrete cases, virtually everyone agrees with me. Each of my little moral vignettes is a forceful counter-example to the grand moral theory that invokes “broad social forces” to excuse wrong-doing. And retaining a grand moral theory in the face of multitudinous counter-examples is practically the definition of bad philosophy.

Does empirical research on the success sequence really show that the poor are entirely to blame for their own poverty? Of course not! In rich countries, following the success sequence is normally easy for able-bodied adults, but not for children or the severely handicapped. In poor countries, even able-bodied adults often find that the success sequence falls short (though this would be far less true under open borders). Haitians who follow the success sequence usually remain quite poor because economic conditions in Haiti are grim. Though even there, we can properly blame Haitians who stray from the success sequence for making a bad situation worse.

Research on the success sequence clearly makes people nervous. Few modern thinkers, left or right, want to declare: “Despite numerous bad economic policies, responsible behavior is virtually a sufficient condition for avoiding poverty in the First World. And we have every right to blame individuals for the predictable consequences of their own irresponsible behavior.”  Yet if you combine the rather obvious empirics of the success sequence with common-sense morality, this is exactly what you will end up believing.

Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, The Case Against Education, and Open Borders.  He is currently working on a new book, Poverty: Who To Blame.  

Editor's Note: This essay was originally posted on EconLogThe opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or viewpoint of the Institute for Family Studies.

*To be fair, Wang and Wilcox also tell us: “But it’s not just about natural endowments, social structure, and culture; agency also matters. Most men and women have the  capacity to make choices, to embrace virtues or avoid vices, and to otherwise take steps that increase or decrease their odds of doing well in school, finding and keeping a job, or deciding when to marry and have children.”