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Oklahoma government and groups have spent more than $70 million in federal money on a program originally aimed at reducing the state’s high divorce rate in hopes of fighting poverty.

But there is little hard evidence that the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative is succeeding in a broad sense.

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Over the past dozen years, the rates of divorce, unmarried cohabitation and single-parent families have increased in Oklahoma while the percentage of households with married couples has declined, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That reflects a national trend.

Poverty rates in Oklahoma have climbed during that period, from about 13 percent to more than 17 percent, the data shows.

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More than fourth-fifths of the $70 million spent during the dozen years came from federal welfare funds that the state has discretion to spend on various social-welfare purposes.

The trends have helped fuel questions among some leaders about whether the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative is effective in boosting marriage and lowering divorce, 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 benefited.

Yet the marriage and divorce trends indicate how difficult it is to quantify the success of marriage-promotion programs.

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“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.”

The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative retains strong support among state Republican leaders.

Last session, lawmakers introduced various bills intended to promote marriage and discourage divorce. One, authored by House Speaker T.W. Shannon and approved, 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.”

Initiative Begins

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 around $13 million in direct grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Public Strategies, the public relations firm that runs the marriage initiative, got more than 90 percent of the money to implement the program. The company also received an additional $15 million in direct federal grants to produce materials for use by other 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 healthy 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.

Four other organizations received Oklahoma Marriage Initiative funds: 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.

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Public Strategies Inc. was founded in 1990 by Mary Myrick, a political consultant for Republicans. The firm drew controversy in the program’s early years because it had won various  sole-source contracts from the 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’ staff has grown to about 150 and the firm runs various projects. Those include training in relationships and communication skills, couples retreats and training for couples expecting a baby, said Kendy Cox, who directs the marriage initiative for the company.

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 African-American couples, Cox said.

Since 2000, about 350,000 people have taken Oklahoma Marriage Initiative courses or training, Cox said, with most reporting high rates of satisfaction.

Jeff and Ellen White
Jeff and Ellen White Credit: Lindsay Whelchel / Oklahoma Watch

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 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.”

Measuring Success

In 2002, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, working with university researchers, conducted a survey on various factors about marriage. The purpose was to gauge current attitudes toward marriage and set a baseline for measuring the program’s effects.

The survey found high rates of marriage and divorce and trends such as couples getting married at a younger age than the national average, as well as high shares of married people previously divorced.

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 a 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 oversees 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, OU and OSU 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 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.

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 Oklahoma.

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 are currently divorced. Nevada and Maine had the highest shares, over 14 percent; Oklahoma’s was 13.5 percent.

Cox said the mission of reducing divorce is still 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 shown 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 large social trends and stigmas about seeking marriage help.

“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.”

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