‘Success Sequencing’ — who really succeeds?

By Jennifer Driver, State Policy Director

We learn very early on in life that certain events happen in sequence. A baby crawls, then walks, then runs. In preschool, we’re taught numbers and order — one, two, three, four and A, B, C, D. We never question why two comes after one or why the letter “J” can’t start the alphabet. These things just make sense.

In grade school, I was always thankful that my last name began with a “D.” Whenever we formed lines, it was in alphabetical order by last name. I was at the front of the line for lunch and recess, you know, the things that really matter in school.

But what happens when someone takes a sequence of events or order too literally? When people start believing that for an outcome to work, or be successful, there must be an immovable sequence to it? An almost Jack-and-the-Beanstalk approach that says, “if you have these tools and follow these specific steps, you will be successful.”

What happens is the creation and implementation of things like success sequencing. Success sequencing hinges on the theory that Americans who:

a) graduate high school,

b) find full-time work, and

c) wait to have children until they are at least 21 years old and married very rarely end up poor.

It’s touted as “insurance against poverty.” Success sequencing promotes the idea that individuals who follow these steps in exactly this order are generally going to be in a much better place to care for their kids because they will be older, wealthier, and married when tackling the financial challenges associated with raising infants and toddlers.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that success sequencing is often used as the basis of reasoning behind abstinence-only-until-marriage or “sexual risk avoidance” programs. After all, who wouldn’t want young people to become successful adults? If we know that all it takes to become successful is to follow this particular sequence of events then surely supporting these programs is the right thing to do!

But, if you stop, step back, and listen to those who push the idea, you begin to ask yourself:

  • Who are they talking about?
  • Who isn’t graduating from high school, or finding full-time work (employment does not always mean higher wages or income!) and
  • Who isn’t getting married before they have children?

You realize that success sequencing is a dog whistle. On a surface-level, it says one thing to the general population, but, in reality has an underlying tone of racial inequity. When your frame of reference is driven by unconscious bias, you begin to make assumptions that are based on coded language rather than facts.

It’s important to note how these harmful beliefs affect policies. Take an era such as the Great Depression — when the face of poverty was primarily attributed to a white man who happened to be down on his luck, or a white family fallen victim to circumstances beyond their control. Through these images, the country felt a duty to end poverty.

As a result, The New Deal enacted policies to support those in need. For those of us needing a bit of a refresher on U.S. history, The New Deal consisted of a compilation of federal programs, projects, and financial relief efforts to help people rise up from their difficult financial situations.

In contrast, years later, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to shed light on the reality of poor black Americans living in urban areas, we began to look at poverty differently. We began to frame poverty among Blacks as “lazy” and “irresponsible.” Some even went so far as to label Black women receiving government assistance as “Welfare Queens” — creating a factually inaccurate narrative of lazy people (almost always people of color) abusing the welfare system.

So how does this historical refresher tie into success sequencing? Similar to events of the past, success sequencing allows for victim blaming which some use as a “diagnosis” for the ills of minority communities.

This provides a false but easier story to tell: Communities of color aren’t doing their part. But, in reality, the truth is harder to swallow: our society is failing to address the systemic, racist factors that contribute to poverty in this country.

Success sequencing does not take into account:

  • the legacy of slavery and the continuing impacts of Jim Crow,
  • generational wealth,
  • the wage parity among Black and Brown communities,
  • the lack of school resources among communities of color, and
  • the ever-closing reproductive health centers that provide needed family planning access to communities.

And most importantly, success sequencing fails to recognize people’s right to make their own decisions about who should be a parent, when it’s time to parent, and whether to wed or not wed.

I once heard the brilliant Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, say:

“Without anti-blackness there would be no whiteness. People’s lives end up being shaped by not being Black. There’s this race towards having the benefits of whiteness and distancing as far as possible from Black people and from the ‘characteristics’ that are assigned to Black people”.

We have a duty within the field of sexuality education to highlight and reject the ways in which white supremacy and anti-blackness appear. This includes dispelling the myth that all young people will find “success” within a singular, one-size-fits-all sequence.