Good news: If young Americans follow a simple three-step formula they can greatly increase their chances of living the American dream as adults.
Bad news: It isn’t entirely clear whether the formula causes the good results or only reflects other causes. And promoting it won’t be a comfortable task for government when such personal life decisions are involved.
The “success sequence” argues that if youths do three things – graduate from high school, get a job, and wait until after marriage to have children – their chances of financial success will grow by leaps and bounds.
The concept received a boost from a recent study by the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, which concentrated on Step 3 of the formula: a marriage before a baby carriage.
It found that 95 percent of Americans 28 to 34 years old who married before having children were not poor compared with 72 percent who had children before marriage.
The study also found that the better results from the “success sequence” were seen across income and racial lines, though white youths and youths from higher-income households saw the best results. In low-income families, for example, 71 percent who married before having children reached at least the middle class by ages 28 to 34, compared with only 41 percent who had children first.
Among blacks, 76 percent who married before having children avoided poverty, while only 39 percent of those who had children first did so. The statistics for Hispanics showed a similar margin (81 percent if married first, 54 percent if had children born before marriage).
But is the “success sequence” a cause or an effect? For example, many of those who chose to marry first, before having children, may have strong religious beliefs that contribute to their success throughout their lives in a variety of ways.
Waiting to have children until after marriage may suggest a mature and practical approach to life. But where do youths acquire these skills? At home? In school? Through religious affiliations? What appropriate role might government play in promoting them?
The study also found that a majority (55 percent) of those ages 28 to 34 are having children before marriage – and thus losing out on the benefits of the “success sequence.”
The issues of human relationships – love, marriage, and child-bearing – are complex and intensely personal. It would be dangerous to oversimplify by concluding that the “success sequence” alone guarantees financial stability.
And it would be wrong as well to conclude that single or unwed parents aren’t deserving of support or that they are incapable of being wonderful parents.
Low-income and minority youths face higher hurdles than white and affluent youths in achieving the first two steps in the “success sequence” – completing high school and finding jobs. If the “success sequence” is going to work for all youths these problems must be addressed as well.
Yet youths should be made aware of the greater likelihood of success if they follow the "sequence." The old playground rhyme "first comes love / then comes marriage / then comes the baby in the baby carriage" suggests that the "success sequence" actually has a long history in American life – and contains valuable advice.