Success Sequence: A Synthesis of the Literature

Publication Date: January 12, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. How have researchers and commentators variously defined the success sequence?
  2. What research exists on the individual milestones that make up the success sequence?
  3. What does research indicate about the relationship between the success sequence milestones and economic outcomes in adulthood?

The success sequence is a term that has gained currency in discussions of federal programs and policies to reduce poverty and help adolescents and young adults achieve self-sufficiency as adults. It refers to a series of milestones in life that are associated with escaping poverty and joining the middle class. Although definitions vary, the milestones most often include obtaining at least a high school education, finding a full-time job, and waiting for marriage to have children. The milestones are described as a sequence to emphasize that their order also matters. Since at least the early 2000s, researchers and policymakers have used the success sequence model to describe a policy approach to reduce poverty and improve economic opportunity for adolescents and young adults no matter their race/ethnicity or how they grew up.

Purpose

In fall 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted with Mathematica to conduct a literature review and an economic analysis of the success sequence. This report presents findings from the literature review, which sought to summarize (1) how researchers and commentators have variously defined the success sequence, (2) research on the individual milestones that make up the success sequence, and (3) research on the relationship between the success sequence milestones and economic outcomes in adulthood. The summary encompasses policy reports and commentaries as well as research studies from the academic fields of demography, economics, and sociology.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Researchers and commentators have defined the success sequence in varying ways. The most widely used definition describes the success sequence as first obtaining at least a high school education, then finding a full-time job, and finally waiting for marriage to have children.
  • Research from the academic fields of demography, economics, and sociology shows that the three milestones that make up the success sequence (education, employment, and nonmarital childbearing) are all interconnected and strongly associated with economic outcomes in adulthood.
  • There is less empirical evidence on the success sequence as a whole. Most of the 13 empirical studies identified in our search used descriptive methods applied to cross-sectional survey data to compare families on measures of poverty and middle-income status.
  • Studies provide correlational evidence that families meeting the definitions of the success sequence milestones have lower relative poverty rates and higher relative rates of middle-income status than families who do not meet the definitions. There is less evidence on whether these associations reflect causal pathways or on whether the sequencing of the milestones matters.
  • Recent studies using longitudinal data partly address this limitation and suggest a promising direction for future research on the success sequence.

Methods

Mathematica searched for relevant studies in three steps. First, the team looked for any foundational reports on the success sequence commonly cited in the literature. Second, the team conducted keyword searches of electronic databases using the term success sequence. Recognizing that relevant studies might not refer to the success sequence by name but address the same underlying topics, the team also reviewed the references cited in the materials identified through the keyword searches. Third, the team conducted separate literature searches for each milestone (education, employment, and avoiding nonmarital childbearing), by pairing a term used to describe the milestone with the additional term poverty (for example, educational attainment and poverty).

Citation

Goesling, Brian, Hande Inanc, and Angela Rachidi (2020). Success Sequence: A Synthesis of the Literature, OPRE Report 2020-41, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.