In fiscal 1999, the Department of Human Services was given approval to spend $10 million in discretionary welfare funds as start-up costs for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The program began picking up speed in 2002.
From 2002 to 2013, five groups received more than $70 million in federal funds for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. That included $58 million in discretionary Temporary Assistance to Needy Families money provided by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and about $13 million in direct grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Public Strategies, the public relations and consulting firm that runs the marriage initiative, got more than 90 percent of the money to implement the programs. The firm also received $15 million in additional direct federal grants to produce materials for use by similar marriage groups nationwide.
Oklahoma’s was the first marriage program in the nation to use discretionary welfare funds. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 allowed some welfare funds to be spent on other social-welfare purposes. Later, under the Bush and Obama administrations, federal grants were created specifically for healthy marriage and relationship initiatives.
On a per-capita basis, Oklahoma has gotten more federal money than any other state since 2000 to promote health relationships and marriage, according to Alan J. Hawkins, a member of the initiative’s research advisory group and author of the book “The Forever Initiative.” Oklahoma has the third highest amount overall, behind California and Texas.
The other four organizations that received Oklahoma Marriage Initiative funds were Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Association of Youth Services and Prep Inc., which provides curriculum.
Last fiscal year, the state human services department spent $8 million in welfare funds on the initiative.
Public Strategies Inc. was founded in 1990 by Mary Myrick, a political consultant for Republicans. The firm drew controversy in the early years of the initiative because it had won several sole-source contracts from DHS and other agencies headed by then-Secretary Jerry Regier, and had billed for expenses questioned by some lawmakers. No wrongdoing was found.
Asked about Coburn’s statement on well-connected companies, Myrick told Oklahoma Watch that most organizations that have gotten federal marriage grants, including hers, are not winning them based on inappropriate political influence, and that strict safeguards are in place.
“Most of the people who do this work or direct service work ... are just trying to serve families,” she said.
Public Strategies now has a staff of about 150 and runs various relationship projects. Those include training in relationships and communication skills, couples retreats and training for couples expecting a baby, said Kendy Cox, who directs the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative for the firm.
All of the programs are free, with many led by volunteers. Participants include married couples, unmarried people, families with an incarcerated parent, high school and college students, parents of foster and adopted children, low-income couples, Spanish-speaking couples and black couples, Cox said.
Since 2000, about 350,000 people have taken Oklahoma Marriage Initiative courses or training, Cox said. Most report high rates of satisfaction, she said.
Jeff and Ellen White of Oklahoma City, who have been married for nearly nine years, are among the participants.
The Whites, who are foster parents, have attended a few of the initiative’s retreats and reunions in recent years and said they successfully applied its techniques to their marriage and their relationship with foster children and others.
“The people were fun, the training sessions are good, and there’s not a time we haven’t walked out with something,” Jeff White said.
“I think every person who has a family should go to these retreats,” Ellen said. “They give so many things to work with and they’re such a great organization.”