The "success sequence" narrative, when deployed as advice to people in poverty, takes a misguided approach to a misidentified problem.
The message of the “success sequence,” as recently explored by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang in their report on Millennials’ family lives and economic status, is that your chances of economic stability are much higher if you finish high school, get a job, and marry before you start having kids. Of course, the data can only show that the people who do avoid or exit poverty are more likely to have these characteristics. Wilcox and Wang control for several obvious factors like race and childhood family income. But the data can’t say whether luck or preexisting advantages (like a mentor, or a brush with the law which led to a warning instead of an arrest) helped some people get high school diplomas and first jobs, while also making it more likely that they’ll earn more and suffer fewer financial catastrophes along the way. So, the imagined “you” of the success sequence might not actually be, you know, you.
But that doesn’t really matter since so few people disagree with the implied advice of the sequence. I’ve spent about 15 years volunteering with an organization that primarily serves low-income women and families. It’s true that we rarely see the city’s most destitute. We see people with the motivation and ability to make and keep appointments. And almost all our clients are women and girls, so I can’t speak to what men believe. But I’ve never met anyone who doubts that getting a high-school diploma can help you exit poverty. I’ve never met anyone who thought that not having a job was just as likely to bring economic success as having a job. When our clients don’t finish high school, it’s because their lives (or schools) have been chaotic, not because they don’t care. When our clients don’t have a job, it’s because they can’t find one or have other obligations, like caring for children. It’s not because they think joblessness is the path to middle-class stability.
What about marriage before kids? Some women prefer single motherhood, due to their assessments of the men around them. But they know it’s harder financially. Doesn’t everyone? And the large majority of my clients, while reluctant to judge others’ lives, believe marriage would be best for their own babies.
So why doesn’t it work out that way? There are two main reasons: one way in which poor people are similar to rich people, and one way in which they’re better.
The overwhelming majority of my clients believe the most secure path to a lasting marriage is sex first, then cohabitation once you can afford your own place, then marriage once you’re both economically stable. Delaying sex until marriage is not merely unrealistic—not merely prudish—but risky. To rush to the altar before you’ve “tested the relationship” is irresponsible: the character trait my clients fear most.
Moreover, when your peers all believe sex is a means toward marriage, being the one holdout does not seem like a secure path toward marriage. When delaying sex is abnormal, it really is risky—if your end goal is marriage and children, not solitary financial success. A strong religious community or (especially for immigrants’ children) cultural identity can persuade young people that waiting is doable, partly by showing them opposite-sex peers, potential spouses, who are also waiting. But these days fewer people have those communities.
The “sex, then cohabitation, then marriage” trajectory is an ethic shared by young Americans across class lines. It was the normative path among my fellow students at Yale. It worked out for many of them because they were quicker to earn what was considered “enough” money to cohabit and then to marry—and because they were terrified enough of pregnancy to contracept or, sometimes, abort.
If you believe the best path to marriage is sex-then-cohabitation, the success sequence makes pregnancy a failure—which the women most highly-motivated to escape poverty often already feel, and the women who most strongly believe babies are a blessing will never accept.
My clients, meanwhile, are caught in a triple bind. They and most people around them believe it’s wrong to have a baby while you’re poor and unwed. They and most people around them believe it’s wrong to abort a child. And they and most people around them believe it’s wrong—unintelligible, lonely—to save sex for a wedding night that may never come.
Of these three, the third belief is strongest and most universal. The first belief is countered by the equally-strong belief that all children are blessings—even “poorly-timed,” unexpected, or initially-unwanted children. In this regard, poor women have better morals than better-off women: They’re more likely to accept economic hardship, even long-term poverty, as the price of motherhood. However, this belief, and the belief that abortion is wrong, can be countered by the pressure to escape poverty. Women most intent on following the “success sequence”—or simply reaching the middle class—are under the most internal pressure to abort.
The people I speak with believe they have a responsibility—there’s that word again—to achieve economic stability. There are two conflicting impulses, to maximize your economic chances or to welcome babies as a blessing, and both of those impulses are grounded in moral beliefs.
And here we begin to approach the heart of my concern with the “success sequence.” On the surface, discussion of the sequence is morally-neutral. “Look,” we say, “we can’t agree on right vs. wrong. But we can agree that nobody wants to be poor, so here’s something that can keep people out of poverty.” This seems crass, and it ignores how often poor people make decisions that they know will make economic success harder because they believe in doing the right thing. The determination to stick to outcome measures is the reason the success sequence tells you to avoid out-of-wedlock childbearing, not premarital sex. If you believe the best path to marriage is sex-then-cohabitation, the success sequence makes pregnancy a failure—which the women most highly-motivated to escape poverty often already feel, and the women who most strongly believe babies are a blessing will never accept.
But of course, the people who proffer the “success sequence” would not say, “Do whatever you gotta to get rich.” They’re implying that what you need to do to become or stay middle-class is actually the right thing to do, so the economic benefits are the result of virtue. The outcome measures (high-school diploma, marriage certificate before baby, and above all income and assets) are proxies for moral qualities like diligence and self-control. To me, the success sequence is an example of what Helen Andrews dubbed “bloodless moralism,” in which
all moral claims [must] be translated into material terms. ... Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP.
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.
It’s possible to build communities—churches, extended families, schools—where all babies are blessings, and at the same time, premarital chastity is imaginable and honored. In these communities, not everyone will get married (not everyone should). Not everyone will be economically-stable; the world is unjust, luck is real, and babies won’t make you rich. Building havens where people are encouraged in educational progress, perseverance in the grueling hunt for work, premarital chastity, married childbearing (for those who do marry), and a life of self-giving will help people live out all that is true in the “success sequence” vision.
Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, and the editor of Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.