Is there a formula for staying out of poverty? Some have suggested that the “success sequence” is the answer, and politicians and pundits have sometimes repeated that claim. The promise of the success sequence is that if young adults follow these three steps, in this order, they will greatly reduce their chances of ending up impoverished:
- Graduate from high school
- Get a full-time job
- Get married – before having kids
Some of the proponents of the plan want a full-court press of support for the success sequence. That would include “public and private social marketing campaigns on behalf of marriage and the ‘success sequence’” as well as “a range of educational, pop cultural, business, and civic organizations” getting in on the act of advocating for the success sequence.
Economic security is important to psychological well-being. Does that mean we should be pouring money into the promotion of the success sequence, and particularly in what is posited as the pinnacle of success in the model – getting married. Is that a good investment if the goal is to reduce poverty?
Endorsing the success sequence as an answer to poverty means that you think all three components are necessary and that the steps should be followed in exactly the sequence that is specified. Is that really true? Expressing skepticism about the success sequence is not a way of saying that education and jobs are not important, or that people should not get married if they want to. Skeptics have other problems with investing money and promotional efforts into this idea. Here are some of them.
One factor is more important than the others, and it isn’t marriage
Attorney and policy analyst Matt Bruenig argues that the success of the success sequence is all about one step in the process – getting a full-time job: “None of the rules provide meaningful poverty reduction after you have applied the full-time work rule.” Adding marriage to the equation, he thinks, is a way for conservatives to “smuggle their cultural views into the anti-poverty debate.”
A person living alone who is working full-time at a job that pays the $7.25 minimum wage would earn $15,080 in a year. As Bruenig notes, that is above the official poverty line for a one-person family, $12,486.
If that person were to move in with another person who is working full-time, that would provide extra insurance against poverty, because of the added income and the economies of scale (there are now two people to cover one set of bills). If the two people married, they would also have access to the many financial benefits provided by the federal government to people who are married. But if that same person living alone and working full-time at a minimum wage job were to marry someone who is not working, the risk of poverty would increase.
Marriage-promotion programs have been tried, and they do not work
The government has already been pouring millions of dollars into programs that promote marriage and educate people about marriage and relationships. After the results of the first couple of federally-funded marriage-education programs were published, I studied them carefully. I found that not only was the evidence for their effectiveness scant, there were even examples in which the programs had harmful effects.
The programs have continued since then, and University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen has scrutinized the findings from the more recent set of reports. He is no more persuaded of the efficacy of those programs than I was years ago. The detailed version of his arguments are in his book, Enduring Bonds, as well as in this blog post.
Promoters of the success sequence think that people need to be persuaded of the importance of education, work, and marriage. They don’t.
Most people want to graduate from high school and get a decent job. Many aspire to marriage as well. There is no need to fund a propaganda campaign to persuade people to adopt these values.
The success sequence pins the blame for poverty on individuals and their supposedly poor moral character rather than institutional factors.
In a great overview of the debate over the success sequence in the Atlantic, Brian Alexander cautions that “The success sequence, trustworthy as it may sound, conveniently frames structural inequalities as matters of individual choice.”
Success sequence advocates seem to believe that individuals, perhaps because of their poor moral character or upbringing, are making all the wrong choices. They are choosing not to get an education, not to work, and not to marry. Or they are making the bad decision to do things in the wrong order, such as having kids before marrying. The problem of poverty, according to this argument, is not about economics, it is about culture.
The “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” argument marginalizes powerful institutional and societal factors. When wages are low, unions are losing their power, the cost of education is daunting, and rates of incarceration are high, it can be challenging for people to get a good education, a good job, and a good spouse, regardless of their magnitude of their efforts or the content of their character.
If “stable partners, education, or jobs aren’t available” to certain people, Professor Cohen asks, what are they supposed to do? Should they just “forego having children,” which many regard as “one of the great joys of life, and something we should consider a human right?”
Suppose marriage really did reduce poverty – then what?
To provide the most definitive answer to the question of whether marriage reduces poverty (or makes people happier or healthier or better off in any other way) would require a kind of study that is ethically indefensible – randomly assigning people to either stay single or marry. But suppose we really could do the best possible study, not just of marriage, but of getting to marriage in the right sequence, and found that the success sequence advocates were correct – getting married does protect people from poverty. Then what? As sociologist Kristi Williams told the Atlantic, it is not as if we are going to pass a law requiring people to marry.
The nuclear family model that is at the heart of the success sequence is less popular than ever. People are now living in all sorts of lifespaces and family forms, including living alone, living in single-parent families and multi-generational families, sharing homes with friends, and living in intentional communities such as cohousing neighborhoods. As Nicole Sussner Rodgers concluded in her Washington Post op-ed, “Marriage is no safeguard against poverty”:
“Redefining what it means to be a good family may be the social justice fight of my generation. It will never be realistic or reasonable to expect people to marry themselves out of poverty. More importantly, no one should have to.”
[Note: This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own. For links to previous UE columns, click here.]