Spotlight Exclusives

How the ‘Success Sequence’ Impacts Young Black and Hispanic Adults

W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project and professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project and professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute., posted on

The ‘success sequence‘—earning at least a high school degree, working full-time in your 20s, and marrying before having children—has been held up in recent years, particularly by conservative scholars, as a promising pathway to opportunity. In a new report, W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies respond to criticism that the sequence does not offer the same benefits to young workers of color because of the systemic disadvantages they face. Wilcox and Wang recently discussed the report in a webinar sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and Wilcox spoke to Spotlight about their new research. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Give us some of the background on this study

We did a previous report on the millennial success sequence and one of the lines of criticism raised was that the success sequence doesn’t really apply to disadvantaged young adults, whether they are African-American or Hispanic or from low-income families. The idea is there are substantial structural barriers for disadvantaged young adults that stand in their way when it comes to walking down the path associated with the sequence in terms of education, work, and marriage. Another line of criticism was that this is really a conservative approach to fighting poverty that’s not widely supported across racial and ethnic lines. We wanted to address both those criticisms in this report as well as a third criticism, that marriage per se is not really all that important because education and work really are the key drivers when it comes to thinking about poverty and economic success in America.

What were your top-line findings?

What this report basically tells us is that the success sequence does apply to Americans across class and racial lines. As I said, there has been this idea that the success sequence is less relevant for African Americans and Hispanics—there was an article written by Richard Reeves and his colleagues at Brookings, for instance, suggesting that the success sequence was not as powerful or relevant for Black Americans. In this new analysis that my colleague, Wendy Wang, and I conducted, what we find among young adults who are in their mid-30s is that 96 percent of African Americans, 97 percent of Hispanics and 97 percent of Whites are not in poverty if they have followed the sequence. So, there’s basically no racial or ethnic gap there when it comes to the sequence’s relationship to poverty. It tells us that, while of course, there are more barriers confronting Hispanics and especially African Americans in some ways, if you do these three simple things—get at least a high school degree, work full time in your twenties, and get married before having children—your odds of steering clear of poverty in your thirties are extraordinarily high and there’s virtually no racial or ethnic difference in that story.

When it comes to looking at young adults who’ve come from families in the bottom third of family income, we find that 94% of them avoid poverty by the time they’re in their thirties if they follow the sequence. From our perspective, we think the success sequence is relevant for young adults across racial and class lines.

And do you feel that these groups require policy changes to lessen barriers to those key points on the sequence?

We briefly mentioned that in this report, but we mentioned it more extensively in our first report on the millennial success sequence. Discussions about poverty, I think, often tend to gravitate either towards structural issues on the left or cultural challenges on the right and we’ve acknowledged they’re both worthy of attention. For instance, when it comes to education, we argue that we could do a lot better in our public schools and our public funding in attending to the educational needs of Americans who are not on the college track, recognizing that today, most Americans still do not get a four-year degree and that’s particularly true for young men. We think there should be both more funding and more attention and more status given to vocational education in high school and also to efforts to better fund community colleges and other programs to provide apprenticeship training.

When it comes to work, I support a subsidy for lower-income workers to boost their wages, make them more marriageable and also to make work more economically attractive to less educated Americans as well. And in terms of the third step, we should eliminate the means-tested penalties that we find in a lot of social welfare programs, like Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax credit. I think these are the kinds of structural reforms, if you will, that would make the sequence more accessible to young adults from minority and lower income backgrounds.

How would some of the COVID-related policy options, like the expanded Child Tax Credit, play into this?

That’s a good question. I think the Child Tax Credit certainly can be a way of providing a measure of financial stability for young families and so in that sense, I think it could be helpful, particularly in the third step, giving people a financial cushion that would protect them from some of the economic stresses that can corrode a marriage.

And would that be something a little bit more universal, like what Senator Romney has talked about?

Actually, on that score, I’ve evolved in my thinking. I’m more in favor of doing something like what Oren Cass has proposed at American Compass where you’d have an expanded Child Tax Credit that would be paid out on a monthly basis, around $300 or $350 per child, but you would phase the credit in to reinforce a commitment to work and to minimize the risk that you would be subsidizing families that have no earners; the danger with the initial approach taken by Romney and Biden to expanding the Child Tax Credit is that you end up supporting a whole class of families who have no connection to the labor force. In the long term, such families are much less likely to realize the American Dream, given the importance of work to realizing that dream.

What about next steps? Are you planning a follow-up to this?

There are a few things I’d mention. One is that we’re also releasing three videos in connection with this report that provide a number of different sorts of stories drawn from young adults in Florida, where our filmmaker, Michael Campo, is based. He interviews young adults who followed the sequence and young adults who have not followed the sequence and provides a cinematic depiction of what it looks like in America today for adults who are not on track and all the struggles they face as well as a portrait of a young couple who are following the sequence and how valuable it is as a path forward.

We will be looking for ways to expand the reach of the success sequence. The Dibble Institute, which is a nonprofit based in California, has a successful curriculum that incorporates the success sequence. We want to think about ways that this message can reach a broader audience and will be working with nonprofits and states to get this message out to the general public, especially young men and women across America.


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