Matt Bruenig: The “Success Sequence” Is About Cultural Beefs Not Poverty

Yves here. Normally, I would treat this sort of right wing effort at cultural engineering as noise, but upon reflection, that might not be so smart. Not paying attention to persistent right wing messaging was what allowed the intellectually incoherent “free markets” ideology to become ascendant.

By Matt Bruenig, who writes about politics, the economy, and political theory, with a focus on issues that affect poor and working people. He has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The American Prospect, In These Times, Jacobin, Dissent, Salon, The Week, Gawker and at his home base of sorts: Demos’ Policy Shop. Follow him on Twitter: @mattbruenig. Originally published at his website

This post was originally intended for the launch of the People’s Policy Project website. But as that is running behind schedule, I figure I will post it here.

The Success Sequence is back! The ad-hoc anti-poverty process first endorsed by Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institute has been picked up by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang at AEI. George Will also recently mailed in a column on the topic by doing a rewrite of the AEI product. I’ve written before about some of the problems with this particular framework, but in light of this new push, it is worth rehashing them here.

The Curious Case of the Different Success Sequences

If you are a long-time observer of the Success Sequence community (like I am), you may have noticed something a little strange about it. Though everyone in this community claims they are interested in the same anti-poverty process, in reality, each publication defines the Success Sequence somewhat differently. And those differences tell you a lot about what actually motivates the folks who push this concept.

For Sawhill and Haskins, the Success Sequence consists of the following five rules (they express them as three rules, but their third rule is a compound rule that I prefer to break up):

  1. Graduate high school.
  2. Get a full-time job.
  3. Get married before having children.
  4. Wait until at least age 21 to get married.
  5. Wait until at least age 21 to have children.

In their AEI paper, Wilcox and Wang claim to be using the Sawhill and Haskins Success Sequence and even cite to their work. But they aren’t actually. The Wilcox and Wang Success Sequence has only three rules:

  1. Graduate high school.
  2. Get a full-time job.
  3. Get married before having children.

Rules four and five, the delay-marriage and delay-parenting rules, are gone! What happened to them? How could such an oversight have been made?

The answer is pretty obvious. Wilcox dropped the delay-marriage and delay-parenting rules because they do not mesh with his particular conservative worldview. His cultural and religious commitments make him uncomfortable advocating for the delay of marriage and childbirth. So he doesn’t.

Sawhill and Haskins have no similar compunction. In fact, Sawhill so loves delaying childbirth that she has spent the last few years of her professional life advocating that we fight poverty by giving poor women free IUDs so that they don’t have poor children, a borderline-eugenic proposal that oddly attracted praise from some prominent liberals.

This discrepancy between Haskins/Sawhill and Wilcox/Wang reveals that many of the rules of the Success Sequence are just the tacked-on cultural preferences of the authors. The rules to delay marriage and parenting after age 21 do not really do anything to cut down on poverty, which is why Wilcox can easily drop them and still arrive at a low-poverty rate for Success Sequence followers.

But the delay rules do not actually cut down poverty because none of the rules provide meaningful poverty reduction after you have applied the full-time work rule. The authors in the Success Sequence community smuggle their cultural views into the anti-poverty debate by embedding them into a sequence with full-time work, which drives nearly all of the low-poverty outcomes that they find. When their superfluous cultural preferences collide with one another, they end up coming up with different Success Sequences.

Trying to promote your cultural views as the panacea to poverty is a smart strategic move. It brings attention to your cause in excess of what it would otherwise get. Just look at the education reform folks who have been doing the same thing for decades. But one does have to wonder how a teenager reading this literature will be able to figure out which set of competing cultural preferences swirling around in the Success Sequence community constitutes the One True Success Sequence.

Work Does All of the Work

I noted this briefly in the prior section, but it deserves further explanation. You can demonstrate (as I have) that full-time work is responsible for the low-poverty results of the various Success Sequences. But you don’t even need to do that. It’s perfectly obvious if you just think about it for a second.

A full-time worker who is paid the $7.25 minimum wage has an annual income of $15,080. If they live alone, the poverty line for their one-person family is $12,486. Since $15,080 is greater than $12,486, no full-time worker who lives alone is in poverty, at least as poverty is measured in the official statistics. What this means is: a person can only be in poverty (1) if they do not work full time or (2) if they live with other people who do not work full time.

If the Success Sequence was not just a vehicle for litigating cultural beefs, what it would really say is that individuals wanting to minimize their risk of poverty should work full time and live alone. Or, if individuals insist on living with others, they should only live with other full-time workers, such as in a double-income-no-kid (DINK) arrangement. Stay away from children, individuals with a work-limiting disability, elderly people, students, unpaid family carers, and those prone to joblessness. If you keep these types of people out of your household and make sure you work full time, you will never be in poverty. That’s the truth.

Despite what the Success Sequence says, marriage does not help you except insofar as marrying adds another full-time worker to the family. If it does not do that because the person you are marrying has a disability or some other work limitation, then marriage will actually increase your risk of poverty.

A high school degree does not do much for you either. It might help you get a higher wage, but minimum wage keeps you out of poverty anyways. A minimum wage could leave you in poverty if you have dependents you are caring for (such as children), and in those cases a higher wage driven by a high school degree might pull you out of poverty. But if you have found yourself in a household with dependents, you are already ignoring the most correct wisdom about staying out of poverty, which is to never live with non-workers.

To be clear, I am not actually saying people should pursue a life where they either live alone or only with other full-time workers. My personal view here is that our economic institutions, and especially our welfare state, should be designed to ensure that nobody is in poverty and that people can form the families they would like. But in our current economic system, it is the no-dependent lifestyle described above that actually minimizes your risk of poverty, not the lifestyle envisioned by the Success Sequence.

What About the System?

Success Sequence writing, like so much other writing on poverty, proceeds by cherry-picking some characteristics that are more prevalent among those in poverty and then identifying those characteristics as the “causes” of poverty. In the case of the Success Sequence, the causes are low work activity, low education, no marriage, or insufficient delaying of childbirth and marriage. But it could be anything. Find some variable, do a regression, and you have finally proved where poverty comes from.

The problem with this type of theorizing is that it ignores the role of the system. Any given cause you identify can only result in poverty if the economic system allows it to do so. Thus, in all cases, the way we have set up the economic system to distribute income in society is a necessary cause of any observed poverty.

This might seem like a cute point, but it is not. Few would quibble with it if we were debating health uninsurance rather than poverty. Just like with poverty, you can find all sorts of things that are correlated with high rates of health uninsurance, including low work activity, low education, and so on. But if someone were to say something like “single motherhood is responsible for health uninsurance,” the most obvious response would be “only in America.” Not in Canada, where everyone has insurance. Not in the UK, where everyone has insurance. Not anywhere in the developed world where universal health care is the norm.

Just as we can set up our system to ensure nobody is without health insurance, we can also set it up to insure that nobody has an income level below the poverty line, if we want to.

The Garbage Generation?

As a final note, I think it would be fun to ask ourselves how many people have followed the Success Sequence throughout history. If this really is a standalone indicator of virtue, rather than a contemporary backfilled set of cultural grievances calibrated to blame the poor for their plight, then surely it will have some sort of universal applicability. At minimum, surely it would describe the typical behavior of people in our own country just a few decades ago, right?


Remember the first prong of the Success Sequence is to graduate high school. In 1940, three-fourths of adults aged 25 and over lacked a high school degree. Even as late as 1966, the majority of adults had no such degree. Was the Greatest Generation really the Garbage Generation?

Young parenting, discouraged by Sawhill/Haskins but not Wilcox/Wang, was also far more prevalent in the past than now. The CDC data only goes back to 1970, but in that year, the mean age of first birth was 21.4. This means that nearly half of the women in that period were violating the delay-childbirth rule.

One might respond to this point by saying those were different times. That was then. This is now. But this is precisely my point. What we have in the Success Sequence is not some kind of time-immemorial wisdom about how to live a virtuous life. Indeed, if the Success Sequence were applied backward in time, it would conclude that almost everyone who has ever lived in the world is an immoral wreck.

Instead of providing generalizable guidance about the good life, what the Success Sequence does is offer up a totally ad-hoc set of rules that are plausible enough within the context of contemporary lifestyles to allow conservatives to say personal failures are the cause of poverty in society. When contemporary lifestyles change, the Success Sequence will have to be rewritten because it will sound just as absurd as the current Success Sequence would sound to Americans in the middle of the last century.

Fifty years from now, conservatives will write op-eds saying the real trick to staying out of poverty is a college degree, cohabitation, and delaying child birth to age 30. No Success Sequence will stay around if it stops describing most middle class lives or if it begins to describe too many poor lives. The goalposts will shift constantly but the conclusion will always remain the same: the poor did this to themselves and the rich should be spared from higher taxes.

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  1. Moneta

    Top-down vs. Bottom-up…

    With the popular belief in free will comes this idea that individuals control their destiny.

    If everyone studied to get a PhD and had a great work ethic, you’d still get the rich vs. the poor because the system is based on the concept of the winner take all approach no matter how close the contestants. There is no place for number 2 in the American ideal. Trump is the top promoter of this idea.

    I repeat this all the time because society constantly distances itself from the reality of nature’s bounty… the US, with 5% of the planet’s population and despite today’s wealth discrepancy, already consumes many times that percentage of the world’s resources…

    So if everyone in the US was as successful as the top 15%, the percentage of consumption of the world’s resources would be even higher. This seems implausible…. chances are that if everyone was successful, the top 15% would have less resources to consume.

    1. Moneta

      All this to say that there is too much focus on the choices of the individual and not enough on the structure of the system.

    2. Steve Ruis

      Re “With the popular belief in free will comes this idea that individuals control their destiny.” I do not think a belief in free will is the source of the control we believe we have over our lives. I think most people are ignorant of the concept of free will. Interestingly, conservative Christians have bought into the “work hard and make good decisions” control of one’s destiny BS, even though so many believe that God has a “plan” for them. No matter what happens, that is part of the pan, apparently and if the plan pre-exists one’s life (necessary for planning, don’t you know) who the heck is in control here?

      I think the source of the feeling that we are in charge of our destiny comes from the rather human desire to be able to blame the victim (e.g. if she hadn’t been flaunting her beauty/hair/skin, she wouldn’t have gotten raped, if he had been more careful with his money he wouldn’t need a loan now, etc.).

      1. Moneta

        There are so many contradictions in our belief systems which are shaped by heuristics and our brain’s desire to make up stories.

  2. Jim A.

    What is the purpose? Is one trying to implicitly blame the poor? Or trying to advise people on the steps to take to try and advance themselves in our current, unfair society, given the fact they have already picked the wrong parents? Keep in mind, it looks like these bits of advice are aimed at getting people into the ranks of the working poor and not really any further. Because for the most part, the current red queen race in education allows entry into the middle class only to those with college degrees. With the rising costs of a college degree, this is an especially high hurdle these days, and it really only gets you to where a high school degree USED to get one.

    1. JohnnyGL

      There are those on the right that constantly try to prescribe individualized solutions to collective problems, packaged with the illusion of a large amount of control over one’s life.

      American society is giving out fewer and fewer winning lotto tickets, but we’re all supposed to work harder and make smarter decisions so we can get one of those winning tickets. Of course, this is a zero sum game in their framing.

  3. flora

    Friedman’s junk theory – Maximize Shareholder Value – either wrecked corporations or prompted corporations and manufacturers to off-shore, eliminating a huge number of jobs. Followed by suppressing wages for the jobs remaining in the country. Now the right wing’s anti-poverty program is “get a job”.

    From Yves’ intro:
    “. Not paying attention to persistent right wing messaging was what allowed the intellectually incoherent “free markets” ideology to become ascendant.”

    I’ve seen this play out in Kansas. Very few people who voted for Brownback believed he was going to do to the state and the state budget what he said he was going to do during his campaigning. It was regarded as “just campaign talk, he doesn’t really mean it.” ….Live and learn.

    1. JohnnyGL

      Re: Brownback,

      That’s the difference between Dems and Repubs.

      Dems lie and tell you they’re not going to launch destructive, parasitical attacks on communities to extract money for their buddies and they do just that.

      Republicans tell you, often specifically, that they are going to do exactly that, but try to explain that it’s really a great idea. And they deliver on their promises!

  4. JohnnyGL

    This kind of thing reminds me of the early 1990s when the results of Reagan’s union-busting, de-industrialization, along with the drug war and mass incarceration were really starting to roll in (let’s not forget the CIA’s drug running exposed via Gary Webb!) Add those to the legacy problem of high rates of lead exposure from lead paint in decaying public and private housing stock, and from exhaust fumes in high traffic areas, especially those that were ripped in pieces by massive expressways built which slice through most major American cities (because cars must always rule over people!) And don’t forget the legacy of redlining black people into isolated areas of cities later called ‘ghettos’.

    At the time, a huge round of victim-blaming ramped up from the right under the guise of the ‘cultural critique’ of black communities bemoaning the ‘break up of the black family’ citing high divorce rates, absentee fathers, high birthrates out of wedlock at young ages. All of these were (and still are) the result of the confluence of factors listed above which constituted a form of assault on black communities.

    To those who’d like to think, “well that’s all in the past”. Oh no, it’s not. It’s very much ongoing as we saw when events in Ferguson and Baltimore forced us to take a look at what life in these communities is really like.

    For those who don’t know….read what Freddie Gray’s life was like and imagine meeting him as a teenager and saying, “Okay Freddie, here’s some unsolicited life advice if you want to make it in America, you need to follow the Success Sequence! Here’s what to do: 1) graduate high school 2) get a full time job and 3) don’t have kids until much later”.

    It’s hard to imagine designing a situation to make an ‘advisor’ look more condescending and out of touch. Places like West Baltimore are communities of people who are treated like trash barrels, doormats, and/or prey depending on what elites so desire at any particular time.

    1. RRH

      Unfortunately, Johnny GL probably hails from Baltimore. Had he lived in Detroit, he might recall that the freeways were built to get people to work. And the creation of Detroit into an urban ghetto was the direct result of a Tuskegee Airman who became Mayor of Detroit telling white people to move North of Eight Mile–the northern boarder of the city of Detroit. People listened, and moved leading to the eventual bankruptcy of Detroit.


    I don’t know if there’s already a name for this, but I propose that we dub this the Success Sequence Fallacy. Attributing a set of actions as the key to a desired outcome, wherein one overemphasizes the effect of the superfluous actions while giving less emphasis to the actually important actions.

    1. flora

      Yes. The Success Sequence wants to eliminate poverty by making it harder for people to live in poverty, not by assisting them to move up out of poverty.

  6. divadab

    The biological reality is that human females are optimised for childbirth between about 16 and 30. A population will decline in health and fertility if all mothers delay children until after thirty. Millions of women have so delayed having children and the result has been very expensive – more high risk pregnancies, more fetal issues, etc.

    Simplistic moralistic checklists like the “success sequence” are contributing to the demographic decline of our society. Because they ignore biological reality.

    The key is how to organize society so that young people can have children while they are young. A good model IMHO is the traditional Italian family organization – where multiple generations live in a single household/compound/village, the young people go out to work, and the grannies and grandfathers supervise and teach the young at home. Organize for generational survival and thriving.

    1. kurtismayfield

      The key is how to organize society so that young people can have children while they are young. A good model IMHO is the traditional Italian family organization – where multiple generations live in a single household/compound/village, the young people go out to work, and the grannies and grandfathers supervise and teach the young at home. Organize for generational survival and thriving.

      But that doesn’t sell property, and increase profits for anyone, so that will never be promoted.

      This list sounds like the quote from Fight Club about advice from his father.

      “Dad, what should I do now?”

      “I don’t know, get a job”

      “Dad, what should I do now?”

      “I don’t know, get married”

      Just keep repeating ad infinitum..

    2. mle detroit

      For some definition of Granny. Not this one. My grandchildren’s other grandmother would be happy to play the “traditional” role but can’t afford to leave her job (in the infant room at their daycare center) because of its health and retirement benefits. My husband is paying now for the grandkids’ future college tuition. You’d have to turn the whole society backwards to get to this old ideal.

      1. divadab

        It only works with a resilient self-organizing family/clan/community. The parasitic ruling class would never promote an actual healthy society – they make their money preying on the weaknesses of the masses.

    3. Arizona Slim

      My father (who was not Italian) grew up in that kind of household.

      My aunt, his younger sister, told me that having the grandmother there was a source of great comfort to her. Granny taught Aunt Jean, and by extension, my cousins and me, our family heritage and the culture that surrounded it.

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      I’ve replied to your claim further down in the thread. Your sweeping assertion about “health of the population” is overstated to the point of being false. The big risk to delaying childbirth is not being able to have a child, as in not conceiving and higher rate of miscarriage. While people like to talk about the higher risk of Downs Syndrome babies for women who have children when they are over 40, it turns out the risk of other birth defects is lower in women over 35.

    5. Carla

      “The biological reality is that human females are optimised for childbirth between about 16 and 30. A population will decline in health and fertility if all mothers delay children until after thirty.”

      My mother was born in 1911. Many in her generation of women deferred marriage and child-bearing due to the Depression, followed by the War, and my mother was among them. She had her children very late (the first at 36, followed by a miscarriage and a premie, then a second child at 43).

      I’m just saying, it has happened before.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        It appears per your mother’s experience (and that of other women) that while women are clearly more fertile when they are younger, it does not necessarily follow that the health outcomes for women who have successful pregnancies at older ages are worse. Nature indeed may take care of this via the difficulty in conceiving and miscarriages among older women.

        However, one issue is that people in their 20s have more energy even than people in their 30s, and in particular can handle the sleep disruption that comes with babies much better and that probably helps a great deal with coping with the change of raising kids.

        The contemporary offset is (as noted elsewhere) most people in their young 20s are emotionally immature compared to individuals of the same age a generation or two ago. This is not my view but that of sociologists and psychotherapists. Childhood has effectively become longer in the US.

  7. RUKidding

    In the end, it’s always about blaming the victim, combined with kiss up and kick down.

    The so-called “Success” Sequence makes a certain amount of sense, for sure. But these days, it’s no guarantee for any definition of success in life, much less the ability to make a living wage and support a family without both parents having to work 3 or 4 jobs each. Believe me, I know families in this situation today. It’s not pretty, and it’s not their “fault.”

  8. Tomonthebeach

    “Get a good job, period.” That is a simple-minded solution to financial success in life. It merely primes the capitalist pump that will drain their lifetime earnings. So are the various admonitions about marriage and reproduction, although they often apply because of other – not specified – choices people make that often exponentially dig them deep into financial trouble.

    Getting too intellectual about causes of poverty often overlooks how people respond to capitalism. During my life, I have watched people slide into poverty via serial bad choices. The timing of those choices is often a factor that varies at the individual level with negative consequences. If somebody making $15K/year marries somebody who is also making $15K/year their life may take a slight up-tick, but if pregnancy enters the picture, the number of mouths to feed increases to 3 while the number of bread winners drops to 1. Eventually, the wife can re-employ to restore that income, but child care will eat up half of her restored income. Additionally, if they are also making payments on an F150, and put most baby-related expenses (cribs, clothes, hospital) on their Mastercard, the truck might get repossessed for missed payments resulting in a lost vehicle, and that event will cause their Mastercard APR to jump to 30%. If the truck is needed to get to work, a few bad decisions puts them in a hole that can take years from which to crawl out.

    Looking at cross-sectional data, all things being equal (which is never the case at the individual level), it is easy to refute or support a theory – just jiggle the assumptions a little. As Dean Baker’s book “Rigged” nicely shows, economic success in life is mainly due to avoiding the slippery slopes of a capitalist system with which most Americans (HS diploma or not) really do not understand. Capitalism uses consumerism to lay trap after trap to lure people into financial holes from which they will have to struggle and pay double to escape – if they ever do.

    Lately, I find myself counseling people in the gig economy who at 40 do not know how to set up an IRA and allot money to regularly build its value. They do not know that a credit union usually eliminates many banking fees they currently pay, and that there are credit cards which charge less interest than theirs. They have been too busy struggling to escape their traps – loading 16 tons, and what did they get? [late Ernie Ford]

    1. Spring Texan

      Yes. And sometimes you see someone who has escaped a lot of the traps, like my housecleaner who is extremely frugal, has read cash at hand, and owns several rent houses.

      The best book to give young people (or older people who need some excellent foundation of advice) on managing money is All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi. If they are married, they should also read The Two-Income Trap.

      They emphasize keeping down your fixed expenses so you still have some room for fun. Really good advice.

      When you are living in a system full of traps and not full of decent jobs, things can be hard, but avoiding the traps as much as possible can still better one’s life. (I am NOT blaming those who didn’t, or saying we don’t need to improve the system.)

        1. David Green

          OK, but there’s no formula or plan that will work for everyone as long as the societal structure requires that a certain percentage lives in or near poverty. However practical the advice and behavior, it’s still (in the larger picture) like imagining that everyone will be rich when everyone gets a Ph.D.

  9. BVian

    Meh. There are societal problems and there are personal problems. Both need to be addressed. Children are expensive so telling people to wait until they are older to have them is not punishment. In addition to that, it is very difficult to get a high paying job without a college degree these days, not impossible, but difficult. Telling people to go to college is not punishment. The vast majority of people living below the poverty line are women and children, so it’s easy to see why someone would say, “hey, maybe it would be a good idea to have a 2 parent household”. Having said all of that, paying people a living wage, having single payer health insurance, paid family leave and childcare, affordable college tuition and regulations on Wall Street would go a long way to reducing poverty as well. The Right is only 1/2 right. The Left is only 1/2 right. Imagine how much better life would be if we combined the best ideas from both sides.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I suggest you read the post carefully. the Success Sequence is pushing the idea of being married and having kids. It’s thus saying being single and/or childless is bad. I know plenty of women who didn’t get married because they didn’t want to get married. This study effectively says they must get married (and have kids!) supposedly for their own good as well as implicitly for the men too.

      1. flora

        Let me tack on the note states that didn’t expand Medicaid coverage under the ACA still have control of who is and is not eligible for Medicaid coverage.

        In Kansas Medicaid coverage is not available to an able bodied poor person 19-65 unless that person is a pregnant woman or an adult parent or caregiver.

        The Success Sequence can be implemented by discriminating for marriage and parenthood in state aid programs. Theory becomes action.

        1. flora

          If a person is poor, from bad luck or bad choices or irresponsible actions, the right wing is quick to condemn said “irresponsible” person; demand they pull themselves up by their bootstraps (bootstraps?); and avoid any effort to lend financial aid. ‘They brought it on themselves, they can pay for it themselves.’

          On the other hand, if a person is rich and well connected, from good luck or good choices or illegal/irresponsible actions (say a TBTF banker), the right wing (and too many liberals) are quick to defend even the most egregious actions that harm the non-rich and demand others pay for the damage and make the bad actor whole.

          It really is about cultural sympathies.

      2. Tim

        You are right Yves, but the left considers personal responsibility and lack of moral hazard as givens, the same way the right considers good faith leaders of the system (both government and corporate).

        There is a balance. This web site is doing it’s job focusing on addressing the shortcomings of the right’s view, but it is still a short coming of the lefts view that personal responsibility is a given and if it isn’t we can deal with that later. Policy needs to address both, and sometimes the answers aren’t really what either side wants to hear.

        Not everybody is a parent and should set out to be a parent, and may people that are parents shouldn’t be parents, but I would say that 2 parent families are more likely to succeed in raising kids that can avoid life traps, than a single parent, both for differences of approach to parenting and the amount of time that could potentially be devoted to the effort.

        I never hear the left bring up that a significant contributor to black community issues is lack of positive father figures to the youth. It is one factor amoung many but it is a factor. What does the left do to address it? Nothing, except community efforts, but it’s taboo to say that a 2 parent family could actually provide better outcomes. That would offend those that don’t have the luxury.

        1. David Green

          Perhaps you could get Bill Cosby or O.J. Simpson to put in a good word for two-parent families, as well as having them oppose the Drug War and mass incarceration regime.

          Anyone on the left who is serious will support the primary social supports being provided as a basic right: housing, healthcare, education, employment at a certain age.

          Obviously, beyond that, life will be life and people will be people, and at that point we can talk about personal responsibility and social services.

        2. Moneta

          Everybody who can conceive is made to be a parent. It’s societal rigidities that puts the limits you state… a woman’s prime years are 15-30 (and that’s pushing it), yet our economic constructs are pushing women to delay past 30.

          So who is right? Nature or Western society?

          From my life experience, nature always finds a way.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            What a bigoted perspective. By your logic, homosexuals and people who choose not to have children are an offense to “nature”.

            As Emile Durkheim pointed out, primitive societies are mechanical. Every does pretty much the same thing. Modern societies are organic. You have opera singers, plumbers, cops, doctors, office managers. People have different roles and both the society and the individual is enriched by that.

            And a woman having a career before she has kids offers her more protection in case her marriage does not work out. The kids are always her responsibility; the father effectively has the option as to whether he is involved or not (subject sometimes to a divorce court limiting that).

            Moreover, from what I can tell, the risks of deferring childbearing are mainly those of lower fertility, as in not being able to have them at all. Women over 40 who give birth actually have slightly better longevity than those who don’t. And the idea that women who have kids later are at higher risk of birth defects is also exaggerated and does not appear to be based on actual data (as in they’ve only looked at some risks and not others)! See this WebMD report:

            It’s already known that older women face a higher risk than younger women of giving birth to babies with chromosomal abnormalities, which include conditions such as Down syndrome. But according to the study team, it’s been less clear if being an older mother boosts the risk of major congenital malformations.

            Little information has been available regarding the association between age of the mother and the risk for birth defects that affect different parts of the body, such as the heart, brain, kidney, bones or digestive system, the authors noted.

            In the new research, Goetzinger’s team studied the results of second-trimester ultrasounds for more than 76,000 women.

            The researchers found that older mothers — aged 35 and older — were 40 percent less likely than younger mothers to have a child with one or more of the birth defects known as major congenital malformations….The rate of heart defects were similar in both groups, the investigators found, but there were lower rates of brain, kidney and abdominal wall defects.


            1. Moneta

              I never said that those who can’t conceive can’t be parents!!!

              I find it appalling when somebody says that if you are not a good parent, you should not be a parent as if you know how good you’re going to be until you become one.

              As for having children later, I still believe society is going against nature. The defects might not show up in birth defects but can show up later in life as the eggs and the sperm of older women and men can have more mutations.

            2. Moneta

              It’s not just about the baby. Pregnancies at an older age are harder on the woman’s body.

              The other issue I have is that society is increasingly disconnecting from nature… for example, women are getting their menses at an ever earlier age, yet society makes you become an adult at an ever older age. This surely has an impact on the mental wellbeing of our youth.

              As for the impact on careers and finances, it’s not a slam dunk. While kids used to be out of the house by the time parents were 40, today its past 50 making it very hard for parents to save for retirement.

              It sure looks like society is not made
              for having kids in general!

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                Women who bear children over 40 live longer:

                At the other end of the motherhood age scale, this study reveals that women who have a child over the age of 40 experience better health in later life.


                You need to deal with data, not stereotypes.

                So there does not appear to be a health cost to having children when older. That appears to be the case in part because older women who try to have kids can’t necessarily carry them to term. As I said, the big risk of trying to have kids when older is not being able to have them.

                And I object to the idea that being a parent is some sort of inherently desirable thing to do. My parents had kids only because it was the 1950s and that was what you were supposed to do and it was good for my father’s career. I know too many people who had children because their parents pressured them (“When are you going to give us grandchildren?”). I can name women whose mothers were nagging them constantly.

                In my opinion, having children is one of the cruelest things people do. Every religion is fundamentally about reconciling people to the inevitability of suffering and death.

                We inflict pain on others casually and regularly (what other species engages in wars and torture? Even dolphins at most raid to steal females, but those fights are short lived) and have managed to wreck the planet and wipe of huge swathes of species in a remarkably short period of time. Why are we perpetuating that by giving birth, particularly when the main conscious reasons historically have been selfish (kids to serve as farm labor, and to support parents in their old age).

                1. Moneta

                  This data is based on past experience, at a time when women were not living the same life as women today.

                  Those with careers and children are pretty stressed.

                  Plus those who had their children after 40 might have been able to conceive because of their better health but they might have been even healthier in their older years had they not had children in their 40s.

                  1. Yves Smith Post author

                    You don’t have any data to back up your views. The onus is on you to prove your argument, and not continue asserting.

                    If you had read the Two Income Trap, which was published in 2003 and based on older data, 2/3 of households with children were two earner households. That is now down to 59.1%. That would suggest that more women are not working and have more time to work at home. Moreover, my observation is that a high percentage of women who choose to have children in their 40s are affluent and can afford help.

                    Finally, if you’d followed the press in the US, one reason for delayed marriage is that protective parenting means that adults are maturing emotionally much later than before. I’ve seen more than a few articles reporting on women in their late 20s complaining that the men they are dating are immature and the women are having trouble finding men they see as capable of being responsible.

                    1. Moneta

                      A lot of today’s 40+ women are not getting pregnant naturally and these fertility treatments are having health effects. This is not reflected in past data. It will be in a few decades.

                      Plus a large percentage of today’s 40+ women getting pregnant are overweight and research has shown that weight is a big health factor, probably more than age, another modern issue not reflected in past research data.

                    2. Yves Smith Post author


                      Again you have your facts wrong. Obesity levels in the US grew rapidly from the 1980s to the early 2000s. They not changed since then:

                      Between 1980 and 2000, the prevalence of obesity increased significantly among adult men and women in the United States; further significant increases were observed through 2003-2004 for men but not women. Subsequent comparisons of data from 2003-2004 with data through 2011-2012 showed no significant increases for men or women.


                      So that 2006 study you keep trying to dismiss when you have yet to find any data that disproves it is still germane.

                      Similarly for your hypothesis to be correct, there would need to have been a rate of increase in fertility treatments in the last 20 years among women over 40. Again there is no evidence to support your claim.

                      And as I keep saying the big issue with trying to get pregnant when you are over 40 is getting pregnant at all:


                      In keeping, in the US, the big increase in births among the over 40 cohort was before 2005. The chart in here is log scale and so hard to read, but a different report using the same data said the live birth rate for women over 40 per 1000 people was 9.7 in 2005. It was barely over 10% as of 2015:


        3. Yves Smith Post author

          Wowsers, did you bother reading the post? First, it’s the right that is pushing having kids as key to “success”. I never hear anyone on the left pushing that. Instead, in case you missed it, the left is all behind Planned Parenthood and the right to abortions.

          And another thing you appear to have missed is the right is following Nixon’s compromise: have abortions be legal but don’t fund them, which makes them unaffordable for poor people. Oh, and it’s now hit the point where in most flyover states, there are no abortions clinics and abortions are no longer taught in med schools in the US. And that supposed progressive, the sainted Hillary Clinton, said abortions should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.”

          Bruenig, by contrast, shows that what matters for avoiding poverty is having a job. You don’t want to admit to what the data says. If you have steady work you can afford a kid independent of marital status. And you seem to forget that Elizabeth Warren demonstrated nearly 15 years ago, in the Two Income Trap, that being married didn’t protect couples with kids from financial distress, since the cost of getting into districts with two schools imposed an overall burden that required both parents to work to afford living there. When one parent lost a job, bankruptcy often followed. She stressed that this did not happen anywhere near as much in the days of the one earner families because the non-working parent was a reserver worker who could step in in case something happened to the breadwinner (Of course, with the decay in the quality of jobs and the fierce competition for them, it’s not clear now that a stay at home spouse who newly entered the workforce could earn more than WalMart level pay).

          She stressed that the families who went bankrupt hadn’t been big spenders: no lavish TVs or vacations, but did have a bigger nut, like needing a second car because both spouses worked.

    2. Altandmain

      College is not a miracle solution either. Lots of people who have graduate also unemployed or underemployed.

      It also leaves graduates in deep debt. Oh and before you insist on only going to study the so called “good Majors”, many folks in STEM, business, law, and fields conservatives push for are also in this situation.

      The system is rigged. Even with college, there are often few high paying jobs where the workers have a stable income and fewer as temporary work is pushed onto society by employers.

  10. Spring Texan

    I really like how Bruenig cogently shows that “work does all the work” and that their prescriptions do NOT follow from the evidence. Great piece!

    1. Lambert Strether

      > work does all the work

      A brilliant slogan.

      Even at the high school level, “Work = Force x Distance,” it’s true. And so for all the more and more complex systems layered on top….

  11. Terry Flynn

    OK sorry if I’m being dense – I’ve had a long day getting vulnerable people to answer a choice experiment in my local general practice to find out what they think GPs should be prioritising and my brain is fried.

    Is Yves’ intro to the piece criticising Matt Bruenig’s criticism of the cultural norms theory? I think neither cultural norms nor “setting up a system so nobody falls below the poverty line” are the answer. First of all, cultural norms have to be elicited in a ‘bottom up’ fashion (as stated by Moneta)…and must be done correctly, reflecting the trade-offs individuals make – thus the “I don’t want kids” example of Yves. People like Shalom Schwartz with his ‘list of values’ have thrown away the old scoring systems that require a textbook-size amount of “statistical data cleaning” to “net out the spurious effects things like rating scales do” and we can now make proper comparisons across people. Of course people interact with the incentives offered – so simplistic “make work” welfare state solutions do just that – make work. People don’t just want to have a system that guarantees minimum incomes – I guess we’re perhaps veering here partially into MMT territory with a system that properly values and rewards people for things that give value to their life or which might be a mixture of “necessity” and “relationships/love” like caring duties.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > Is Yves’ intro to the piece criticising Matt Bruenig’s criticism of the cultural norms theory?

      Only in the sense that we’re critical of everything, because we believe in critical thinking. That said, I read “this sort of right wing effort at cultural engineering” as referring to the Brookings mishegoss, not Bruenig’s commentary on it.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Yes, correct, that I’d normally ignore stuff like the “Success Syndrome” as culture war and therefore off our radar. But it’s wrapping cultural engineering as some sort of economic truth.

  12. Lambert Strether

    > Fifty years from now, conservatives will write op-eds saying the real trick to staying out of poverty is a college degree, cohabitation, and delaying child birth to age 30.

    That’s the optimistic view. A pessimistic view:

    Conservatives will write op-eds saying the real trick to staying out of poverty is avoiding getting killed in the Jackpot.

  13. Ptolemy Philopater

    The success sequence neatly illustrates that the point of “austerity” is not a growing economy lifting all ships, but genocide. If you want to stay out of poverty, don’t have kids, dammit. Leave the world empty for the ethnically privileged, a land without people, for a people without land, or actually people who want all of the land.

    Likewise mass incarceration. All those ethnically challenged young men cannot breed while behind bars. The Eugenic movement is alive and well in the United States of ethnic privilege. Hence, according to Nixon’s Erlichman, the War on Drugs is born. Not the drugs of the ethnically privileged, namely martinis, but all the rest used by the lower orders. It should rightly be called the War on the Ethnically Challenged.

    All the bogus economics spouted in today’s corporate universities has as its basis genocide. The economic equilibrium that they all toot, is shifted so that the few thousands of the ethnically privileged can have it all, and the rest can all just go and die, without having reproduced of course. Strip away all the economic blather and this is what you have, vicious tribalism.

    Interestingly enough, John Kiriakou, in an interview on RT about his prison experience, says that in prison the inmates segregate ethnically, the Aryans, the Italians, the Jews and the Hispanics, the world in microcosm. I wonder who are the ethnically privileged in prison?

    1. lyle

      Yet recent studies have shown that the greatest reduction in Co2 emission is to at least have fewer children. Many on the enviro left think the world population should fall to below 1 billion total, and a bunch not having children will help this. (Actually East Asia with total fertility rates of 1.4 or so is making a good start.) Of course this is just modern Malthusianism.

    2. HotFlash

      Hmm, seems to me that if They wanted the mopes to have fewer children, wouldn’t they just, you know, generously fund Planned Parenthood, or pay for Contraceptives and Abortions for All or something?

      Now, if they wanted the mopes to *suffer*, they’d make sure they couldn’t afford kids and then make them have them. And other stuff too, eg, school to prison pipeline, no maternity or parental leave, drop wages to where it takes two (or more) people to support a couple, let alone a family. Which looks kinda like the current plan.

  14. Livius Drusus

    These individualistic explanations for poverty always change. First it was finish high school then it was you have to go to college. Later on just any college degree wasn’t enough it had to be a STEM degree. Then just any STEM degree wasn’t enough it had to some type of engineering degree not biology or chemistry. Now I hear more people saying that college is bad altogether and people should go to trade school.

    It is the same thing with marriage and children. First it was wait until you are more mature and have money to get married so you don’t end up in an unhappy marriage and get divorced. Now some pundits and scholars advocate getting married early because they are worried about birth rates and are afraid of single people living like characters from some 1990s sitcom which they see as a sign of Peter Pan syndrome and moral depravity.

    Another example of moral panic that tries to pass for legitimate analysis today is the theory that male unemployment is driven by video games and online pornography and not silly stuff like lack of demand or Fed policy that seeks to slow job growth whenever they claim we are seeing inflation rise too fast.

    The chattering classes will always find some supposed moral failing among people and make that The Reason why working people are falling behind. These narratives are popular among the affluent (see the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy) because it makes them feel superior by confirming that what they believe about meritocracy is true and also by taking policy off the table and replacing it with moralism which gets the government and business interests off the hook.

    1. Rosario

      Yes, no one wants to admit that they are a statistical anomaly (i.e. the nouveau riche). In a culture uncomfortable with the chaos of the world it is akin to admitting one is a fraud. Also, the older I get the more I notice that those same people are often the most self-righteous defenders of the system that protects their status.

      WRT J.D. Vance, contrast him with Joe Bageant (a more enjoyable writer IMO). Bageant was never far from his roots. He never joined the gilded class, and the lack of “as the wind blows” status-quo enabling in his writing reflect that. Also, Hillbilly Elegy is a pretty dismissive title regarding an entire segment of society, unless he is speaking for himself. Through, from the book, I don’t think it is self-referential.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos

        As titles go, do you really think “Deer Hunting With Jesus” would not come across as dismissive to the people it describes?

        1. Rosario

          Valid point, though I see a vigor and humor in Deer Hunting With Jesus completely absent From Hillbilly Elegy. It is a humor that I think most “rednecks” can respect, while allowing Joe Bageant the space to ply a bit of satire. I don’t get that impression from J.D. Vance. He seems like a man insecure with his past and he wants it to die inside him. His book is too serious and ironically it comes across as dismissive. Like calling a veteran a “hero”. You may be right though.

            1. Rosario

              Thanks for the article, I wish I had these words before:

              If democracy is understood as the possibility of establishing social obligations toward those luckless in the marketplace, the global elites had entered into, or created, a world in which there was a great deal of lucklessness and not many obligations.

              An excellent description of our politics.

              Sure, I’m a born and raised Kentuckian, still live in Kentucky to this day, so I don’t disagree. I spent much of my time with true-blue (or red) rednecks (depending on their preferred college basketball team) in work and play and I never dared mock their way of life unless the degree of our friendship allowed for a joke at either of our expense. In fact, I could play along quite well in the culture, and enjoy myself for the most part, even if I had one foot in and one foot out. Even the bald-faced bigotry peppered in here and there came largely from inter-generational ignorance, not an excuse, but at the least a good explanation with a potential social cure.

              I guess the only defense I can make of Bageant is his wanting to reach an audience all too willing to adhere to those stereotypes (something I admit Vance did as well) and from the content of the book I don’t think it was his desire to belittle or dismiss “redneck” America. In any case, if I could choose, I would rather have Bageant as a “spokesperson” than Vance.

        2. witters

          The title and the reactions confuse me. Is it dismissive because Jesus would hunt with absolutely anyone? Or nobody of any quality would hunt with Jesus?

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Hunting = violent.

            Jesus = not violent save a bit with money-lenders, not with Bambi.

            So it is insinuating they are hypocrites, as well as playing up stereotypes in a not-sympathetic way.

            And that also does not acknowledge that a lot of people who hunt do so to eat the critters, and not for sport. My father, for instance, quit duck hunting (which he really liked, BTW) when he ran out of oldsters in Maine who would eat the coots he shot (I’ve had coot, and maybe there is a way to prepare it, but I found it to have a strong resemblance to shoe leather). He didn’t think it was right to kill animals just to kill them, there needed to be a reason.

            1. witters

              Oh, I see. Mind you, I can imagine Jesus pig hunting:

              Mark 5: 11-13. There on the nearby hillside a large herd of pigs was feeding. So the demons begged Jesus, “Send us to the pigs, so that we may enter them.” He gave them permission, and the unclean spirits came out and went into the pigs, and the herd of about two thousand rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the water.…

              1. HotFlash

                I have often occasionally wondered how two thousand very not-kosher pigs ended up in Galilee.

    2. Moneta

      Considering the vast majority of GDP is to produce superfluous non-essential goods and services, the cognitive dissonance forces us to convince ourselves that we in the developed world deserve our money so we can live with ourselves.

  15. Rosario

    Orienting people’s moral compass is not “bad policy”, it is simply a “non policy”. This is an arm of conservatism that I just don’t understand and never will. There is absolutely no meaningful way to impact people’s (very) personal ethical and moral decision making at a political level in any way that is not immediately interpreted as intrusive or manipulative. The thinking is too simplistic and its application unrealistic.

    One counter to their argument, what of broken homes? I came from one myself. I had no more control over my parents relationship than their parents, brothers, sisters, neighbors, etc. What of the government influencing that? I’ll leave the reader to imagine how that would play out. Their choices were contingent on factors beyond anyone’s control but their own. Whether irrational or not their decisions were made and the consequences played out to the present affecting society as external outputs, whether they be unemployment, debt, lack of healthcare (i.e. things that can be affected by policy). So I am to believe that, simultaneously, people are supposed to roll a 7 every day, while making the most rational choices for themselves and others? This is stupid, just stupid, and should be called as much. There is no room for policy here. It is just an excuse to do nothing. It is an excuse to be lazy when in a position to actually affect people in meaningful ways.

    1. HotFlash

      Aaah, broken homes, which we were warned in the 60’s and ofter would result in a Juvenile Delinquent, *guaranteed*! I was a child back then, and I had friends and schoolmates whose parents, I later found out, were staying together “because of the children”. Lemme tell you, the children would have much rather the parents split up so they could have gotten out of that toxic home.

      There must be a better way of sorting out this kind of situation than making the entire family suffer.

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