Conservatives Think They Have a Magic Formula for Raising People Out of Poverty

Do-re-mi. ABC. Get out of poverty, America.  


I haven’t yet read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me. But I did find myself groaning while reading Rich Lowry’s review of it at Politico. This was not due to anything Lowry wrote specifically about Coates’ work—which, again, I haven’t opened—but because he trots out a bit of received conservative wisdom about fighting poverty in a very irksome way. It’s a canard I fear we’ll hear a lot during the presidential election.

Lowry, who edits National Review, says he dislikes Between the World and Me because it is too nihilistic and doesn’t offer a “positive program” to improve the lot of black America. However, he also dislikes Coates’ suggestion, put forward in a widely read Atlantic essay, that the government start by considering paying black families reparations. Why? Social science, of course. 

… like all Americans, [blacks] are in a much better position to succeed if they honor certain basic norms: graduate from high school; get a full-time job; don’t have a child before age 21 and get married before childbearing. Among the people who do these things, according to the research of Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, about 75 percent attain the middle class, broadly defined.

In policy circles, this idea is often referred to as the “success sequence.” Conservatives —including presidential contender Marco Rubio and sorta-kinda-contender Rick Santorum—are quite fond of it, because in their eyes it shows that personal responsibility is essential to conquering need. Certainly, Lowry seems to think so. Would reparations “be transformative for any individual?” he asks in his review. “No. For poor blacks to escape poverty, it would still require all the personal attributes that contribute to success. So Coates is selling snake oil. Even if he got his fantastical reparations that he has poured such literary energy into advocating, real improvement in the condition of black people would still require the moral effort that he won’t advocate for.”

This is, in fact, a statement about much more than reparations, or Coates. Implicitly, it’s an argument that unless the poor embrace middle-class “norms”—that all-important three-part code that unlocks membership to the middle class—money is useless.

Which is just sort of silly.

In the end, the “success sequence” is a mildly catchy way of stating the obvious. It is not a magic formula—though people who follow it rarely end up poor, by Sawhill and Haskins’ own admission, a good number of people take all of the right steps and still don’t make it to the solid middle class. But yes, you are more likely to get there if you both graduate from high school and promptly find full-time work. That’s sort of like saying it’s easier to go bear hunting with a gun than it is to wrestle a grizzly into submission—nobody would think otherwise. You are also more likely to be middle class if you get married before having children, in part because wedded couples have been found to be more stable, and two incomes are typically better than one, especially when there is a baby to raise.

I somehow doubt that there are many people who need to be told that graduating high school, finding a job, and settling down before starting a family are ideal things to do. Achieving all of these personal milestones is easier, however, if your family happens to have money, or can at least afford to put food on the table. Wealthier children do better in school. Moving poor kids to nicer neighborhoods while they’re young improves their future earnings. The more money men make as adults, the more likely they are to get married. “Moral effort,” whatever that means, might be useful when it comes to making your way through the world. But cash definitely is.

It is also entirely possible to end up in the middle class while violating the success sequence, which is not, in fact, some sort inviolable law of nature. As Sawhill and Haskins show, a quarter of Americans who miss one or two items on their to-do list end up earning above 300 percent of the poverty line. Many of those individuals were probably born middle class or wealthy. But that only goes to show how, with a little help, people can find a decent lot for themselves, even if their lives don’t conform to Rich Lowry’s strict standards.

Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill

And that’s why, as I said, I’m not looking forward to conservative politicians picking up the “success sequence” as a theme. If you treat it as a list of things that we should probably help people do, it’s fine. But, again, it’s not magic. And it shouldn’t be treated as an excuse to cut off people from help if they don’t live their lives by a very specific set of rules. This country really doesn’t need yet another flimsy excuse to let people fend for themselves.