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The Story: A new study finds that the vast majority of Millennials who follow what has been called the “success sequence”—that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order—are not only not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28 to 34), but are likely to have family incomes in the middle or upper third of the distribution.

The Background: A new report from Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies and cosponsored by the American Enterprise Institute examines a group of Millennials whom the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth has been following since 1997, and who were last interviewed in 2013 and 2014, when they were 28 to 34 years old. The report finds that the link between marriage and economic success among Millennials is “robust after controlling for a range of background factors.” Compared with the path of having a baby first, marrying before children more than doubles young adults’ odds of being in the middle or top income tier, after adjusting for education, childhood family income, employment status, race/ethnicity, sex, and respondents’ scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT), which measures intelligence and knowledge of a range of subjects.

The report also finds that the economic welfare of millenials (i.e., more likely to reach the middle class and to avoid poverty) is significantly affected by their following a set of norms that have been called the “success sequence”:

1. Graduate from high school;

2. Maintain a full-time job or have a partner who does; and

3. Have children while married, should they choose to become parents.

Of the Millennials who follow this sequence, 97 percent are not in poverty by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28 to 34), and 86 percent of them are at least middle class.

This pattern holds true for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as young adults from lower-income families, the report notes. For instance, 76 percent of African American and 81 percent of Hispanic young adults who married first are in the middle or upper third of the income distribution, as are 87 percent of whites. Likewise, 71 percent of Millennials who grew up in the bottom third of the income distribution and married before having a baby have moved up to the middle or upper third of the distribution as young adults.

“Given the importance of education, work, and marriage—even for a generation that has taken increasingly circuitous routes into adulthood—policy makers, business leaders, and civic leaders should work to advance public policies and cultural changes to make this sequence both more attainable and more valued,” concludes the report.

Why It Matters: If you’re out of work and can’t earn an income, it’s easy to slide down the economic ladder from working poor to just plain poor. So it’s no surprise that the poverty rate in America has, since at least 1970, moved in sync with the unemployment rate. During each recession we would see a spike in the poverty rate and then a decline as the economy recovers and employment levels began to rise.

But around 2010, something seems to have changed. A decrease in unemployment is now no longer enough to reduce the poverty rate. Even when unemployment decreases, the poverty rate doesn’t fall significantly. According to the Brookings Institute, “This finding reinforces the idea that there are other significant drivers of the poverty rate in addition to the state of the job market—specifically, the composition of families and the generosity of the safety net.”

This finding align with what many family scholars and economists have been predicting for decades: the decline of marriage leads to an increase in poverty.

From 2000 to 2014, the American population increased by more than 27 million while the number of marriages decreased during that same period by 174,728. Over the last decade, as Millenials have moved into adulthood, we’ve seen the same trend: more people, fewer marriages.

The effect of the decline in marriage, coupled with an increase in single parenthood, is that many more children live in poverty than they would if marriage were more common. As the Heritage Foundation reports, marriage is the greatest weapon against child poverty:

The collapse of marriage, along with a dramatic rise in births to single women, is the most important cause of childhood poverty. . . . Nearly three out of four poor families with children in America are headed by single parents. When a child’s father is married to his mother, however, the probability of the child’s living in poverty drops by 82 percent.

Wherever we look—whether in the streets or the social science research—we find confirmation that the breakdown of the family is correlated with societal ills such as poverty.

We know the problem, and we know the way to prevent it—the success sequence. But what can Christians do to help our neighbors follow such socially beneficial norms? And what can we do do for those who find themselves—and often their children—trapped in poverty?

Christians can help by ensuring we communicate the importance of the “success sequence” to all children, preferably long before they become teenagers. I can attest from experience how transormative this simple action can be. 

My own parents had failed to follow any of the success sequence: neither graduated high school, they had a child before marrying, and the frequently made life choices that made it difficult to hold on to full-time employment. The result was that for most of my childhood we lived either near or below the poverty level.

But I was blessed by being exposed to extended family and church members who ensured I saw firsthand the importance of getting a basic education, of the dignity of work, and of following the biblical standard for marriage and childbearing. By the time I reached high school the “success sequence” was so ingrained in me that I would have considered any other path to be absurd. 

Not all children are so fortunate. Many kids today grow up in neighborhoods where dropping out of high school is the norm, where few if any have married parents living in the home, and where maintaining full-time employment ranges from difficult to impossible. So how do we help them? First and foremost, we need to reach these communities with the light of the gospel—for, like all of us, that is what they need most. Second, we need to expose children in these communities to biblically prudent life choices. We can’t assume that anyone in America “just knows” that you should be married before having babies. Third, we need to be conduits for children who need extra help in moving up the economic ladder. Much of the success we have in life is because of “who we know.” Children trying to escape the cycle of poverty should be able to say that they know us—and know they can count on us to give them the help they need to get ahead.

We also have an obligation, though, to help those who failed to make the right choices and are already trapped in less than ideal family situation. We need to recognize that sometimes, as Dylan Pahman says, “the financially strained tend toward less traditional family arrangements, and less traditional family arrangements tend toward financial strain.” Pahman explains how Jesus has shown us a way forward:

[T]hose who support traditional marriage and family appear to be falling into the error of confirmation bias. “See!” they say, “traditional family is better. Now we’ve got the data to prove it. Moral breakdown leads to economic breakdown. You reap what you sow.”

While I mostly agree that they have the right ideal, the danger comes when having the right ideal degenerates into idealism. What they do not see is that sometimes—or perhaps more than sometimes—economic breakdown precedes moral breakdown.

Of course, I do not deny the element of free choice. But for the poor, saying, “You should really get married before having children,” when they might not have the means to do so even if they wanted, sounds a lot like telling the lame, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!”

The problem is more complex than that. And adding shame to suffering hardly seems a proper solution, nor the loving thing to do, for that matter.

Thankfully, as Christians we do know someone who can say to the lame, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (John 5:8). That person, of course, is Jesus Christ, who showed us that one cannot conquer death, corruption, imperfection, and sin either by pretending they don’t exist or by condemning those afflicted by them. Rather, he conquered death by death, setting an alternative pattern of life for us: resurrection.

The takeaway here should be that if Christians are concerned about the breakdown of the traditional family, they would do well to explore ways in which they can sacrifice in order to help those in less-than-ideal family situations first to stand on their own two feet, before exhorting them to stand together. If we hope for resurrection, we must be prepared to take up our own crosses daily.

Can you help someone find a job? Learn a new skill? Simplify their bills? Navigate through online applications and tiring paperwork? Or, at least, can you find some other way to help them find the hope they need to see a different future for themselves? It’s not fun, but I’d recommend starting there, and then, only when and if it is more of a live option from a pragmatic point of view, getting to the question of ideal marriage and family arrangements.

Without taking up that cross, however, the irrelevance of the traditional message will only increase with the multiplication of nontraditional family forms under strained economic conditions.