For the past dozen years, Oklahoma government and groups have spent more than $70 million in federal money on a marriage program originally aimed at reducing the state’s high divorce rate, in hopes of fighting poverty.
More than fourth-fifths of that money for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative came from the state’s pool of federal welfare funds.
During that time, however, the rates of divorce, unmarried cohabitation and single-parent families have increased in Oklahoma and the nation, while the percentage of households with married couples has declined, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Poverty rates in Oklahoma have climbed during that period, from about 13 percent to more than 17 percent, U.S. Census Bureau data shows.
The trends have helped fuel questions among some leaders about whether the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative and similar programs in other states are effective in a broad sense, and whether taxpayers should be funding such marriage-improvement programs.
The marriage initiative, launched in 1999 by Gov. Frank Keating with a goal of cutting divorce rates by a third by 2010, is led by an Oklahoma City public-relations firm that has provided workshops and outreach to several hundred thousand people.
In 2002, initiative leaders abandoned the goal of reducing divorce rates by a third within a decade, saying it was unattainable. The initiative now focuses on encouraging healthy marriages and families, with many participants saying they have benefitted.
Yet the marriage and divorce trends indicate how difficult it is to quantify the success of marriage-promotion programs.
“While these grants are well-intentioned, they oftentimes fail to reach measureable goals and instead send precious tax dollars to well-connected companies that thrive off of government contracts,” U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn said in a recent statement to Oklahoma Watch. “The best way for the federal government to promote marriage is to respect the institution and the rights of parents to care for their children.”
Still, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative retains strong support among state Republican leaders.
Last session, lawmakers introduced various bills aimed at promoting marriage and discouraging divorce. One, authored by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, will use discretionary welfare funds to pay for public-service announcements promoting the benefits of marriage. Those PSAs will be developed in mid to late 2014.
The marriage push may carry over into next session. In October, Shannon held an interim-study hearing at which experts and state agency officials testified about how marriage can produce economic benefits for individuals and communities.
“We must change the conversation on poverty to focus on stronger families, which in turn will not only produce a more stable and healthy economy, but also improve overall well-being for all Oklahomans,” Shannon said.
At an August appearance, while praising the initiative, Shannon added, “The problem is that it’s been in the micro level, not the macro level. We need to take it out to the macro level because, yes, I think they have seen some successes.”