The “Success Sequence” - What Does It Tell Us?

One story about poverty in the United States goes like this: Poverty is simple to escape. Finish high school. Get a job, even a menial one. Do not have kids until you’re married. And if you do all these things, you’re pretty unlikely to be poor.

Conservatives like this story because it suggests that no significant social changes are needed to end poverty. On this view, poverty may even be just a personal choice. It’s largely up to you whether you follow the so-called “success sequence” or not.

Critics, though, are quick to point out that the success sequence is much easier described than followed, and that following it is much easier for some people than for others. Failing or dangerous schools offer little reason for students to remain. Getting a job is easier in some places than others, and easier for some types of people than others. In some communities, marriage partners are all too few. And avoiding having children is a lot to ask, because it’s a natural human desire to want to have them.

If the success sequence doesn’t hold up so well, what do we do about it? And what specifically libertarian steps remain to be done to fight poverty?

This month at Cato Unbound, we’re debating the usefulness of the success sequence as a tool for thinking about American poverty. Cato Senior Fellow Michael Tanner has written the lead essay, which I encourage you to read. Comments are open, and we welcome readers’ feedback. Discussion with a panel of diverse outside experts will continue through the end of the month.