Following the success sequence is a path away from poverty and crime

By Andrew Heath

Raleigh, NC – First, graduate.  Second, maintain full-time employment. Third, if you’re going to have kids, wait until you’re married. If you follow those three steps in that order, you are following what has been coined the “success sequence.” People who have followed the success sequence are much likelier to escape poverty and end up in the middle to upper-income brackets. Many parents have been giving similar advice for generations, but academics and policymakers have only recently given the concept any attention.

Photo by Kevin Gent

Isabell Sawhill, (associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton White House) and Ron Haskins (senior advisor to the President for Welfare Policy in the Bush White House) featured the “Three Norms Analysis” (a precursor to the success sequence) in their 2009 book “Creating an Opportunity Society,” and used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey to measure the performance of those who completed one, two, or all three of the “three norms” in terms of income distribution. Their analysis showed that individuals in families headed by an able-bodied adult between the ages of 25 and 64 had a 98% chance of escaping poverty if the family adhered to all three norms, whereas 76% of individuals living in families who did not adhere to any of the three norms were living below poverty.

In 2017, Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies published The Millennial Success Sequence: Marriage, Kids and the “Success Sequence”, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. With respect to the success sequence and poverty, Wang & Wilcox reported that just 3% of those who followed all three steps ended up poor. Moreover, 89% of Millennials who completely followed the success sequence ended up in the middle or upper-income groups.

As the budget director for the State of North Carolina, I saw the huge systemic costs of crime. The budget for the Department of Public Safety is roughly $2.5 billion per year. Around 25,000 people enter prison and another 50,000 or so enter probation each year after being convicted of, or pleading guilty to, state crimes in North Carolina. The average cost to house an inmate in a North Carolina Prison is $100 per day, and the North Carolina Indigent Defense Services (attorneys provided to indigent criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own) costs North Carolina taxpayers over $130 million annually.

As a Superior Court judge, I have presided over sessions of court in half of our state’s 100 counties and have seen firsthand the devastating human cost of crime: lives are ended or ruined and communities suffer. The judge is often provided details of the life circumstances in which guilty defendants’ crimes were committed in an effort to advocate for a more lenient punishment. In such a setting, the judge is typically informed of the defendant’s education level, employment, and information about their spouse and dependents, if any. My courtroom experience showed many criminal defendants were not following the success sequence, and this was corroborated by the available data.

Information is collected from offenders during prison and probation and additional information is maintained by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. While 29% of prisoners and 47% of probationers had completed the 12th grade or higher, the overall North Carolina high school graduation rate is now at 86% and has not been below 70% since 2002. Although it is unclear from the data how long periods of unemployment persisted prior to incarceration, half of North Carolina offenders were unemployed upon entering prison in a state where the unemployment rate had not been above 6% from 2014 until the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2019. Marriage rates are also significantly lower for prisoners (12%)  and probationers (114%) versus all adult North Carolinians (approx. 50%). No specific data is available with respect to the timing of marriage before having children, however, nearly 40% of prisoners reported having one or more dependents at the time they entered prison despite less than 12% of prisoners reporting that they were married at the time they entered prison.

Does North Carolina adult offenders’ underperformance on the individual components of the success sequence suggest a relationship between a criminal conviction and lack of adherence to the tenats of the success sequence? Could an individual’s likelihood of committing a crime to be reduced if the success sequence were followed? Published research provides strong support for a relationship between crime and success sequence components of education, employment, and marriage. One study showed that a one-year increase in average education levels is estimated to reduce arrest rates by 11%. Another study found that job stability and marital attachment in adulthood were significantly related to changes in adult crime – the stronger the adult ties to work and family, the less crime. A related study found that being married is associated with a significant reduction in the probability of crime, averaging approximately 35% across key models.

These studies together seem to provide optimism that the success sequence could be pursued as a path away from crime. I urge policymakers to explore ways to educate our children about the success sequence. This could not only cut the costs associated with crime, but it could help us ensure a safer, more prosperous future for our children.


Andrew Heath is a Superior Court judge currently serving as director of the Administrative office of the Courts. Heath wrote about the “success sequence” as a potential crime deterrent as part of a recently completed LLM degree.