In 2002, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, working with university researchers, conducted a survey to measure various factors about marriage. The purpose was to gauge current attitudes toward marriage and set a baseline for measuring the program’s effects later.
The survey found high rates of marriage and divorce, as well as trends such as couples getting married at an age younger than the national average, and high shares of married people who were previously divorced.
So far, no follow-up survey has been done.
“We have not had the money or the right design to do a comprehensive evaluation on the entire range of the initiative services,” Cox said.
A 2002 story in the Washington Times quoted an OSU researcher as saying the baseline survey cost $150,000.
After the survey, the initiative’s research team concluded that Keating’s goal of reducing divorce by one-third in a decade was unattainable.
“That was more of a policy statement than it was an actual research-based statement to make,” Cox said, adding that Keating was seeking funding.
“We’re not just trying to reduce divorce,” Cox said. “Our mission is to provide relationship education and skills to the public.”
The Department of Human Services is responsible for overseeing the initiative. Public Strategies files an annual independent audit with DHS, and there are yearly meetings between the company and DHS to discuss finances and performance, Cox said.
Marriage and prosperity
In 1998, before the initiative began, University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University economists produced a report on factors that would allow the state to become more prosperous. Among those was lowering the rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births and child abuse.
Gov. Keating then formed the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative with the stated goal of lowering divorce rates.
Scientific studies on the broader successes of healthy marriage initiatives have been mixed. Some found significant positive effects while others found no effect. An evaluation in 2010 found positive results from the Oklahoma initiative’s Family Expectations program, which targets couples expecting a baby, although among seven sites, only Oklahoma City’s results were statistically significant.
Meanwhile, divorce rates have risen and marriage rates have declined. Experts debate which cause-effect dynamic is greater: lower marriage rates worsening poverty or higher poverty lowering marriage rates.
U.S. Census Bureau data from 2000 to 2012 shows that while married households in Oklahoma still make up the vast majority of “coupled households,” the percentage of married households has fallen, from 54 percent to 49 percent, reflecting a national trend.
The rates of people over age 15 who are divorced, of unmarried cohabitating couples and of single-mother households have increased in the state, federal data shows.
In 2012, Oklahoma had the third-highest divorce rate in the country, measured by the Census Bureau as the percentage of people aged 15 and over who currently are divorced. Nevada and Maine had the highest shares, over 14 percent; Oklahoma’s was 13.5 percent.
Cox said the mission of reducing divorce still is a worthy one, but the goal has proven more difficult and complex than expected.
She said the tools offered through the marriage initiative not only help strengthen marriage and families, but have positive social and economic benefits for the state.
Myrick said the initiative’s programs have been proven to be effective for participants.
“Everybody that comes through from all over the country talks about how it’s the most promising thing happening for particularly low-income families,” she said.
It will take time to see the full results of the marriage initiative, Cox said, because it is confronting both large social trends and stigmas about seeking marriage help, as well as trying to change the way people think about marriage.
“I believe that will happen for us in the future and I believe we’ll be shown to be effective,” Cox said. “We believe all things are on trend to go onward and upward.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit journalism organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on important public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.