The Atlantic

What Is the 'Success Sequence' and Why Do So Many Conservatives Like It?

A common prescription for getting out of poverty ignores the obstacles individual effort can’t always overcome.
Source: Bettmann / Getty

What to do when financial stability is beyond one’s grasp? Over the past decade, a coterie of pundits and think-tank scholars have arrived at a surefire answer, a simple one that comes with a snappy title and puts the onus on the individual: pursue the “success sequence.”

The slogan refers to a time-honored series of life events: graduating from high school (at least), getting a full-time job, and marrying before having kids (in that order). As the conservative columnist George Will wrote last year (in a piece headlined, in part, “Listen up, millennials”), “Of the several causes of descent … into the intergenerational transmission of poverty, one was paramount: family disintegration.” He called the success sequence “insurance against poverty” for young adults.

The success sequence has a powerful allure for its adherents. But just as strongly, the idea repels: A number of critics—many of whom are academics and have sturdy research to back up their position—reject it, not because following it is a bad idea, but rather because it traces a path that people already likely to succeed usually walk, as opposed to describing a technique that will lift people over systemic hurdles they face in doing so. The success sequence, trustworthy as it may sound, conveniently frames structural inequalities as matters of individual choice.

The concept of the success

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