Religion & Liberty Online

Why the ‘success sequence’ is not enough

We’ve seen a drastic shift in the social habits and behaviors of Americans, whether in work, education, or family life. Yet with an ever increasing range of “nontraditional” routes to success and stability, social scientists have begun to see how one particular pattern bears fruit.

Back in 2009, the Brookings Institute’s Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins pointed us to “the success sequence”: a formula that involves (1) graduating from high school, (2) working full-time, and (3) waiting until marriage to have children. If any person meets all of these basic requirements, the odds of escaping poverty drastically improve.

The idea has inspired support for any number of policies and perspectives, reminding us of the importance of hard work, self-control, and individual responsibility before and beyond the levers of “anti-poverty” legislation. Yet such interpretations can also drift into overly simplistic “bootstraps” sermonizing—telling people to simply “grow up” and “stop being lazy” as a solution to present woes.

As AEI’s Brent Orrell explains, such a perspective presumes that any obstacles and subsequent solutions rest only with people as isolated individuals. The bigger story is a bit more complex, and ought to color our responses to any results from such a sequence.

“The success sequence, while it has clarity and illuminates the core characteristics of a successful life, is incomplete and unsatisfying as a guide either to government policy or individual practice,” Orrell writes. “Why would we expect a child growing up in a town or neighborhood with few intact families, a 50 percent drop-out rate, and high levels of unemployment to recognize the value of marriage, education, and work?”

Many researchers are making these sorts of qualifications. As those like W. Bradford Wilcox have noted, the sequence indicates first and foremost that the drivers of a free and virtuous society are not material, but behavioral—or, at a deeper level, social and spiritual. If we hope to build on the successes of ages past, economic or otherwise, we’ll need more than a “sequence-level” adjustment of priorities and mere material allocation. We’ll need a profound shift in our attitudes, outlooks, and moral imaginations.

But as Orrell emphasizes, this isn’t just at the level of the individual. If we are to find takeaways at any sort of macro level, we also need to focus on what precedes such decision-making and learn to foster greater institutional and communal environments. In a culture such as ours, compounded by confusion in these matters—work, family, education, and beyond—surely there is plenty of work to done at the deeper, broader level of cultural institutions and imagination.

Individual virtue and responsibility are needed, but how we get there involves more than simply wagging our fingers and saying, “get up!” As Orrell explains, it also involves cultivating healthy families and community environments across civil society:

A strong marriage relationship creates a stable, nurturing home that leads to a happy childhood that forges educational and economic success. In the normal course of life, this cycle is renewed in another strong marriage and so on. Easy to say, much harder to do. Each step in the cycle is strenuous and complex, embedded in a years-long dialogue between the child, parents, and the surrounding community. That dialogue builds up implicit knowledge — positive, unconscious habits of thought and action — that shape the values, beliefs, and behaviors undergirding success. When the dialogue is corrupted, this implicit knowledge base can be damaged or lost. The intractability of intergenerational poverty has shown us that efforts to rebuild this knowledge is expensive, difficult, and, too often, a failure.

Raj Chetty’s recent study on the importance of local neighborhoods for the socioeconomic outcomes of children reminded me of a critical role that families play in the long-term success of children. The study found that economic mobility for poor children is influenced by key factors in their immediate neighborhoods including the percentage of single-parent families and adults in the workforce. The study found marriage and work are strongly correlated with higher mean incomes in these neighborhoods resulting in greater economic mobility for children. Chetty says low-income boys growing up in these healthier neighborhoods earn about 35 percent more as adults than similarly situated boys in areas a few blocks away with more single-parent families and lower work participation. Such is the power and influence of intact families and regular work that people benefit from them just by proximity.

Such a view isn’t new, of course, particularly for Americans. Tocqueville attributed much of the country’s success to a “spirit of association.” As Michael Novak once argued in an Acton lecture, channeling Tocqueville, “Social justice is a virtue that adheres in persons, but it is a social habit, a form of associations and choosing to work through those associations…for the common good…They can build an entire society.”

This holistic perspective is sorely needed, particularly as we see community and institutional bonds fray alongside individual responsibility—and likewise, as we see individuals flourish in areas with strong community environments. Likewise, it helps to orient our hearts minds beyond mere material wealth and economic status as the only metrics for success. In many ways, these “sequence points” are ends in and of themselves: watering the life of the mind, creatively serving our neighbors, loving our families. These aren’t just pegs on a ladder.

The solution, then, isn’t to toss out the success sequence altogether, but rather to ask bigger questions and make deeper connections when we think about the social order. It will not be found in a simplistic bootstraps religion where we simply berate others (or ourselves) for slacking on this or that component of a particular sequence. Instead, we ought to embody a broader framework and inhabit our communities and institutions accordingly.

“[Success is] not so much a sequence as a decades-long dialogue between the individual, their family and friends, and the community,” Orrell concludes. “Education, work, and marriage are the marks of a successful life as it unfolds…The job now is developing strategies for strengthening families and communities so that more people find the path and stay on it.”

Image: Sheila Sund, The Game of Life, (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.