You know the "sucess sequence." It's the idea that if Young People just do the right things--finish school, get a job, get married, have a kid--in that order, they are less likely to end up not poor. It has occasionally been oversold ("Follow these three rules and you will join the middle class!") and the "data" used to bolster it is a little suspicious (like claiming that only 2% of people who follow these rules end up poor anyway--2%?! Really?)
But at the same time, it makes a certain sort of sense, and it's hard to argue that dropping out and having out-of-wedlock babies while unemployed are few people's idea of great life choices. But does it follow that we should, as Rick Hess recently suggested, teach the "success sequence" in school?
I have always had issues with the idea of the success sequence, despite the fact that, as Hess would point out, I followed it myself, sort of. My biggest suspicion is that folks are, once again, confusing correlation with causation. I can believe that the sequence and some level of financial stability go together, but I'm not yet convinced that the causation arow runs from sequence to success and not the other way around.
Nor is history really on the side of the sequence, given that we are only a generation or two away from the days in which a vast number of Americans did not finish school at all, and yet did perfectly fine. There's also a weird disconnect here for women, who were, for many generations, expected NOT to get a job. They may have been expected to land a husband with a good job, but that's not really the same thing. Nor have good jobs always been available to all people; with a stagnant minimum wage, among other factors, we are looking at a large number of working poor in this country--should they simply consign themselves to never getting married or having children because they can't clear the "good job" hurdle? Hess does acknowledge that many parts of the sequence are beyond the individual's control.
That takes us back to the correlation thing again. Currently the average age for a first marriage in the US is close to 30, which means that folks have to be able to get through a decade or so on their own, though that has changed a lot for women, who up through the 1970s had a median first marriage age of around 20, presumably because they did NOT have to follow the sequence (that age has been steadily climbing since).
How do we move the sequence into schools? I'm trying to imagine what I would have said to my many students for whom working in high school was an economic necessity. I don't want to imagine students going home from school to announce to their family, "I know why we're poor. It's all your fault."
Hess links to an article by Philip Cohen who makes a case for why the sequence is bad public policy, noting that costly initiatives to sell the redemptive power of marriage have utterly failed. Of the advice to wait, he saysSuccess sequencers believe it’s hypocritical to hoard this advice and only dispense it to the children of privilege. But you can’t wish away education, career, and marriage uncertainty or impose order on instability by force of will. If we’re not prepared to guarantee all women the same opportunities as those in my classes have, it’s not reasonable to demand the same attachment to the success sequence that those opportunities make feasible. In the absence of that guarantee, you’re simply asking, or requiring, poor people to delay (until “they’re ready,” in Sawhill’s terms, meaning not poor) or forego having children, one of the great joys of life, and something we should consider a human right.