Research Shows Importance of “Success Sequence”

Steven Wagner, ACF Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families

ACF’s programs are designed to help low-income families, while promoting the healthiest and best choices for Americans to succeed in life. Our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, for instance, has specific purposes in its statute, including promoting job preparation, work and marriage; preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encouraging two-parent married families.

A new report shows how crucial the “success sequence” is for young adults to avoid poverty. Authored by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang of the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, it states: “Millennials are much more likely to flourish financially if they follow the ‘success sequence’—getting at least a high school degree, working full-time, and marrying before having any children, in that order.”

The statistics are worth looking at. The report shows, for instance, “95 percent of millennials who married first are not poor, compared to 72 percent who had children first.” Additionally, “71 percent who married before having children made it into the middle or higher end of the income distribution by the time they are age 28-34. By comparison, only 41 percent of millennials from lower-income families who had children first made it into the middle or higher end of the distribution when they reached ages 28-34.”

ACF’s programs offer tools to support healthy decisions. Our abstinence education programs – block grants to states, and funding for local grantees – aim to deliver promising approaches to reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. And our healthy marriage program offers a range of activities, including premarital education and marriage skills training.

Sometimes individuals, particularly young people, who experience poverty and material or emotional need lose hope that they will ever be able to realize their personal goals in life. The Wilcox-Wang research should give them hope. By choosing to achieve these life goals in their proper order, millennials in this research were virtually certain (97 percent) to have avoided poverty, with a mere three percent of those following this path in poverty. The success sequence should be a model on how to achieve good results.

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