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Personal Responsibility, Not Victimhood, Is the Path to Success

National Review

January 7, 2023

There are too many barriers that stand in the way of the American dream for black and Hispanic young adults — from failing schools to unsafe streets. Unfortunately, Covid made these barriers worse, as wrong-headed lockdown policies in many of our public schools deepened learning gaps between white children and black and Hispanic children, and spiraling crime rates ended up having a devastating, disparate effect on minority neighborhoods. These are among the barriers that stand in the way of black and Hispanic young adults aiming to realize the American dream, one built around a good job, a decent income, a strong family, and a meaningful life.

But there is a path that leads to the dream and away from poverty for them. This path is called the “Success Sequence,” and black and Hispanic young adults who have followed it are markedly more likely to be flourishing financially today, according to a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. The sequence entails three steps: (a) getting at least a high-school degree, (b) working full-time, and (c) marrying before having children. Young men and women who follow all three steps are flourishing financially by the time they hit their thirties.

But some argue that this path is less relevant for black and Hispanic young adults, as well as for young people who were raised in poor families. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, for instance, argued that “even when black Americans do follow all three norms, their economic prospects are worse than whites.” Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute believes that until we address structural “issues [such] as a biased criminal justice system, a failing public school system, and barriers to job creation, let alone systemic racism and gender bias, the success sequence seems more sideshow than main event.” The implication is that the success sequence is of less or little value to black and Hispanic young adults and those from poor families.

Although we do not minimize the importance of continuing to tackle these structural barriers — with policies such as school choice — we also think young adults deserve to know the truth about the sequence. Stunningly, racial and ethnic gaps in poverty are basically nonexistent among young adults who followed all three steps: If they follow the sequence, only 4 percent of blacks and 3 percent of Hispanics are poor by their mid 30s, and the share is 3 percent for whites, according to our new analysis of data that track a cohort of young adults (Millennials) from their teenage years to adulthood in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

The success sequence also offers a way out of poverty for young adults from low-income families. After following all three steps, 94 percent of Millennials who grew up in the bottom third of income distribution are not poor by their mid 30s. In fact, despite structural barriers during childhood, whether these barriers are related to race, income, or family instability, taking these three steps — finishing high school, getting a full-time job, and getting married before having children — is associated with a much lower risk of poverty when reaching adulthood. As importantly, more than 80 percent of black and Hispanic young adults who have followed the three steps of the success sequence, and similar shares among young adults who grew up in lower-income families, have reached the middle class or higher by their mid 30s.

The success sequence accords with what was once called common sense. As the economist Bryan Caplan commented, the causation between the success sequence and poverty is obvious: “‘Dropping out, idleness, and single parenthood make you poor’ is on par with ‘burning money makes you poor.’ The demand for further proof of the obvious is a thinly-veiled veto of unpalatable truths.”

All children in America deserve to know the path to a successful life, as the educator Ian Rowe wrote in his new book Agency. Rather than teaching the narratives of “blaming the system” or “blaming the victim,” we should focus on helping young adults follow the sequence and achieve success in life.

The first step is to teach the success sequence in schools and launch campaigns that promote the sequence to young adults across the country. For instance, as state legislatures from Florida to Utah to Virginia convene in the new year, they should enact legislation to incorporate the success sequence into family-life curricula in public high schools.

Such an approach has substantial public support. A recent study by Nat Malkus at the American Enterprise Institute suggests that the success sequence is quite popular among parents as well as the American public. More than three-quarters of American parents (76 percent) say they favor teaching it in public schools. The support is broad-based among the public: More than 70 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Republicans favor teaching students the success sequence, as do 68 percent of black Americans, 74 percent of Hispanic Americans, and even 72 percent of those adults who did not follow the success sequence themselves.

Moreover, there is new evidence that there are curricula available promoting the success sequence that help teens make better decisions. Love Notes, a relationship program that incorporates the success sequence in its teaching, has proved effective in markedly reducing teen pregnancy among young adults in poverty, according to a new study based on randomized controlled trials.

Given the importance of education, work, and marriage in lifting the fortunes of young adults — including those from disadvantaged backgrounds — state legislatures, local school districts, and nonprofits seeking to reduce poverty and increase the odds that young adults realize the American dream should make every effort to communicate and reinforce the success sequence. Such efforts are especially needed today in the wake of Covid policies that only deepened so many of the racial and class divides holding young men and women back from forging a path to success.

Wendy Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies. Brad Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.

About the Authors

W. Bradford Wilcox