The concept of the success sequence has caught on for multiple reasons. “I think part of the appeal is it’s a fairly straightforward way of formulating a life script,” Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a professor of sociology there, and the best-known advocate of the success sequence, explained. “It has some kind of connection to the way most people came up and they sort of see perennial wisdom. And I think the fact that there are three steps to follow. That is appealing.”
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, the director of public education at the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families, and the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, largely agrees with Wilcox. “It’s a 20-second sound bite anybody can agree with,” she says. “It’s advice everybody gives their kids. There’s nothing complicated about it.”
The way the success sequence rose to prominence as a prescription for poverty says a lot about the narratives that America tells itself about meritocracy and who’s deserving of “success.” As far as I’ve been able to determine, the first use of the term occurred in 2006 when the historian and writer Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and the sociologist Marline Pearson co-authored a report called “Making a Love Connection,” for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonpartisan sexual-health advocacy group that’s now known as Power To Decide.
Whitehead and Pearson wrote that modern teenagers “lack what earlier generations took for granted: a normative sequence for the timing of sex, marriage and parenthood.” Then they put a slogan on such a sequence and described it. Teens, they wrote, “lack knowledge of what might be called the ‘success’ sequence: Finish high school, or better still, get a college degree; wait until your twenties to marry; and have children after you marry.”
So the phrase was born. In the years since, the sequence has been modified somewhat by its promoters to graduate high school, get a full-time job, and marry before having babies, and “success” has been defined down a little to mean “stay out of poverty.”
There has long been concern over the personal economic impact of non-marital parenthood, but a notable flare-up in the debate—one that presages the present-day success-sequence campaign—was sparked by a TV plotline. In May of 1992, the TV character Murphy Brown, of the eponymously titled show, gave birth to a child. She was single, and many social conservatives were outraged; Vice President Dan Quayle condemned the plot, saying that it “mock[ed] the importance of fathers.”
Four months later, with the Murphy Brown debate still fresh, Nicholas Zill, from a think tank called Child Trends, spoke on the topic of childhood poverty in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Human Resources. He never mentioned Brown, but he nonetheless gave powerful ammunition to social conservatives. In his talk, Zill presented data showing that 45 percent of children in single-parent families lived in poverty, versus 8 percent of children in married-couple families. He talked about both individual behavior—as in, being a single parent—and structural obstacles that perpetuate childhood poverty, such as racial discrimination, high unemployment, and too-low wages.