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March 28 2018

The Key to Success is the Sequence: Work Hard, Marry, Then Have Children

by Charlotte Hays

"The Sequence Is the Key to Success," a Wall Street Journal headline announces.

"Go to school, work, marry, have children. Why do we fail to convey this message to young poor people?" the subhead says, elucidating the sequence.

Let me take that question first, before getting into Wendy Wang's excelent oped.

It is dangerous even for a respected academic to convey the message that "the sequence" promotes success.

If you try to convey that message, you'll be widely attacked, insinuated to be a Nazi, and ordered not to teach one of your courses, even though you have tenure.

That is what happened to University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who coauthored a column arguing that bourgeois values--i.e., the sequence-- promote success in life.  Amy Wax's story (here, here, and here) is why more people don't utter or write this baseline truth.

Wendy Wang grew up in a working class family in China. Her family stressed the importance of working hard and getting an education before starting a family. Wendy, under her mother's direction, waited until later to date. Schools reinforce these goals. Out of wedlock births in China are less than 4 percent.

By contrast, the Center for Disease Control found in 2016 that 40 percent of babies in the U.S. are born to unmarried mothers. The rate for out of wedlock births in the black community is 77 percent; it is 49 percent for Hispanics. In 1940 we were on a par with Wang's China for overall births--3.8 percent of babies in the U.S. were born to unmarried mothers.

Wang cites Brookings scholars Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins who have done valuable work on "the sequence" (I believe they coined the term) and then offers this sobering truth:

But the message isn’t much discussed on this side of the Pacific—and when it is, it’s controversial. Liberals often dismiss it as a right-wing notion. They shouldn’t. Following the success sequence is associated with a much lower chance of being poor and much better odds of realizing the American Dream.

Wang worked with University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox to test how well the sequence steps work among the millennial generation. The results are worth knowing:

We found that at ages 28 to 34, 53% of millennials who had failed to complete all three steps were poor. The poverty rate dropped to 31% among millennials who completed high school, 16% among those who had a diploma and a full-time job, and 3% for millennials who also put marriage before the baby carriage. Among childless and unmarried millennials 28 to 34 who followed the education and work steps, the poverty rate was 8%.

In regression models that predict the odds of being in poverty after controlling for a range of background factors—including intelligence, childhood family income, race and ethnicity—the probability of ending up poor was reduced by 60% for millennials who married before having children and by about 90% for millennials who followed all steps of the sequence compared with those who missed all three.

More important, the success sequence benefits young adults from low-income backgrounds. Among young adults who grew up in low-income families, those who followed all three steps had a poverty rate of only 6%, compared with 35% for their peers who missed one or more steps. Eighty percent of those with lower-income backgrounds made it into middle- or upper-income brackets when they followed all three steps, versus only 44% for those who missed one or more steps.

The bad news is that young adults from less privileged families are much less likely than those from upper-income families to follow the sequence. Our study found that some 68% of millennials age 28 to 34 who grew up in the bottom third of the income distribution missed one or more steps in the sequence, compared with only 35% of their peers from upper-income families. Nearly half of young adults from lower-income families had children out of wedlock, versus only 19% of their peers from upper-income families.

This divide is troublesome. It’s an important example of the how the American upper class is “hoarding the American dream” for itself, as Brookings scholar Richard Reeves has argued. Young adults from more-privileged backgrounds generally get the message from parents, peers and teachers that they need to get a degree, work and marry before having children. And most of them act accordingly. But this message doesn’t filter down to young adults from poor and working-class families, among whom unmarried parenthood is more than twice as common as in the upper middle class.

Let's hope Ms. Wang doesn't get Wax-ed for speaking these truths.


IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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