Success Sequence: New Way to Blame the Poor!

Matt BruenigIt has been fascinating over the years to watch conservative intellectuals (loosely defined) argue that people are poor because of their bad life choices. This is a major part of the writing done by both David Brooks and Charles Murray. It’s a way of looking concerned and high minded while blaming the poor for all their problems. It is just the modern version of classism: claiming that the rich are deserving of their wealth and the poor are deserving of their poverty. But instead of saying it is genetics (although Murray has said that too), they say it is “cultural.”

One way that people have found to quantify this concept is the “Success Sequence.” This is the idea that with three weird tricks, you too can avoid poverty. I’ve never given it much thought, because the whole thing is such question begging. It isn’t as bad as saying, “make a lot of money and you won’t be in poverty.” But it is close. Check it out:

  1. Graduate from high school;
  2. Maintain a full-time job or have a partner who does;
  3. Have children while married and after age 21, should they choose to become parents.

The thing that jumps right out of this is that the second weird trick is as close as one could get to assuming the conclusion as is possible without being laughed out of polite company. Forget high school and children, why not just leave it there at number two? But I think that’s clear enough. If it had been “one weird trick,” it would have been obvious that it was nonsense. But people look at the three and figure each of those must add something to the equation. And all three things are good ideas. So what the hell?

I don’t know exactly how these weird tricks were developed. But I figure, it started with someone thinking of a short list of similar “good ideas.” Then some numbers were crunched, and they determined that these three created the best correlation and they went with it. As it is, there are plenty of people like Rich Lowry who are just itching for anything to use to claim that the poor have no one to blame but themselves.

The amazingly brilliant Matt Bruenig decided to look at the numbers regarding the Success Sequence, even though it is clear to him as well that it begs the question at hand, The Success Sequence Is Extremely Misleading and Impossible to Code. He concluded:

Given the above, it’s honestly hard to understand why Sawhill/Haskins and Brookings more generally have presented the Success Sequence like this, or indeed at all. Full-time work gets you the vast majority of the way to the low-poverty conclusion and then high-school education gets you basically right up to it. Bringing in the marriage and child-delay stuff is totally unnecesary and then can’t even be properly identified in the data. Adding a condition that does basically no work for your conclusion that you can’t even identify is utterly baffling. I hate to accuse others of bad faith, but it’s very difficult to not wonder if there was an agenda for the marriage/child points that they crammed in no matter how irrelevant it was and how impossible it was to operationalize.

But the more fundamental critique remains. Isn’t it self-evident that if the poor all had full time jobs that most of them would not be poor? The point of the Success Sequence doesn’t seem to be to illuminate the causes of poverty. It seems to be just to excuse poverty — as a way to claim that it is all about the poor being undisciplined and lazy. It’s sad — and totally unacceptable coming from a decent think tank like Brookings.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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