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- Published: 2021
- By age 30, what portion of young adults have completed high school, had a full-time job, gotten married, and had children? What are the most common sequences in which young adults complete these milestones?
- How do these sequences vary according to gender, race or ethnicity, and parental level of education?
- To what extent are these sequences associated with economic self-sufficiency and family stability when people are in their late 30s?
Since the early 2000s, researchers and policymakers have used the term success sequence to describe a policy approach for reducing poverty and improving economic opportunity for adolescents and young adults. The term refers to a series of milestones in life—most commonly defined to include high school completion, full-time employment, and waiting for marriage to have children—that are associated with escaping poverty and joining the middle class. These milestones are described as a sequence to emphasize that their order also matters. In fall 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contracted with Mathematica to conduct a literature review on the success sequence. This literature review found that further research is needed on the success sequence. To fill the gaps identified through the literature review and expand available evidence on the success sequence, HHS also contracted with Mathematica to conduct an economic analysis of the success sequence.
This report presents findings from a quantitative analysis of the success sequence. Previous studies on the success sequence model provide correlational evidence that families meeting the definitions of the success sequence milestones have lower relative rates of poverty and higher relative rates of middle-income status compared with families who do not meet the definitions. However, a key aspect of the success sequence model—and how it differs from other theories and research on the individual milestones—is that the order and combination of milestones define a uniquely important pathway to follow in the transition to adulthood to ensure economic self-sufficiency. Earlier studies consequently produced less evidence on whether these associations reflect causal pathways or whether the sequencing of the milestones matters.
To assess the benefits of the success sequence, the project team used two nationally representative longitudinal data sets to conduct an economic analysis of the associations between completion of success sequence milestones by age 30 and economic self-sufficiency and family stability outcomes in the late 30s. Milestones were defined as high school completion, full-time employment, marriage, and childbearing. The analysis considers both the completion and the relative timing of milestones, thereby enabling an assessment of whether the order and combination of milestones also matter for future outcomes.
Key Findings and Highlights
- The analysis shows significant diversity in the pathways young adults take in their transitions to adulthood. Of the 65 possible sequences that account for the order of milestone completion, nearly all of them (64 out of 65) are reflected in the data.
- The most common combinations and sequences of milestones vary by gender, race or ethnicity, and parental level of education. For example, females are more likely than males to report completing all four milestones by age 30 (33.9 percent versus 27.7 percent).
- Consistent with prior research, the analysis shows that high school completion, full-time employment, and marriage are all associated with an increased chance of avoiding poverty in young adulthood, whereas childbearing is associated with a lower chance of avoiding poverty. Consequently, the groups of young adults with the lowest poverty rates are those who have completed some combination of high school, employment, and marriage.
- Overall, the results suggest that the individual milestones, regardless of sequence, appear to be the main factors associated with economic outcomes in adulthood. In comparison, the specific sequence in which milestones are completed has a more modest association with economic outcomes in young adulthood.
- There is less evidence of an association between milestone completion and family stability outcomes, with only the marriage milestone having a consistent individual relationship with them. The results do not suggest evidence of an additional meaningful association between family stability outcomes and the completion of milestones, either in combination or in order.
The project team relied on two longitudinal data sources to conduct the economic analysis: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) cohort and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). The team first identified the respondents who completed each milestone by age 30, and then calculated the percentage of respondents who completed each possible combination of milestones, both with and without accounting for the sequence of milestone completion. Next, the team constructed measures for three economic outcomes—non-poverty status, middle-class status, and household income—and three family stability outcomes—presence of at least two adults in the household, number of residential partner transitions, and relationship satisfaction—all measured when majority of the respondents were in their late 30s. The team then used regression analysis to assess the association between the completion milestones by age 30 (individually, and in combination, with and without accounting for their sequence) and the outcomes observed when individuals were in their late 30s.
Inanc, Hande, Ariella Spitzer, and Brian Goesling (2021). Assessing the Benefits of the Success Sequence for Economic Self-Sufficiency and Family Stability. OPRE Report # 2021-148, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.