Citing budget cuts, state officials are ending the controversial Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, a 17-year-old program originally aimed at reducing the state’s high divorce rate.
The state Department of Human Services announced it is eliminating its funding for the program because the agency is facing a budget shortfall of more than $100 million this fiscal year. It is implementing $45 million in cuts that include slashing 91 positions and reducing several public-assistance programs and will seek supplementary funding to help fill the remaining gap.
The state has spent more than $70 million in federal discretionary Temporary Assistance to Needy Families money on the Marriage Initiative since the program began under Gov. Frank Keating in 1999. It provided counseling, workshops and other support services for thousands of Oklahomans with the goal of reducing the rate of divorce as a way to combat poverty. In 2002, initiative leaders abandoned the goal of reducing divorce rates, saying it was unattainable, and the program’s purpose began shifting to encouraging healthy marriages and families.
Still, the initiative drew scrutiny as Oklahoma’s rates of divorce, unmarried cohabitation and single-parent families increased while the percentage of households with married couples declined. These reflected national trends. The state’s poverty rate also rose, although it slipped in 2013 and 2014, while remaining above the national rate.
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. The 13.5 percent who said they were divorced was also an increase from the 11.6 percent who reported in the 2010 Census that they were divorced.
The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows Oklahoma’s divorce rate in 2014 was again the third highest in the country and well above the national rate.
Concerns about the program prompted Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, to unsuccessfully push a bill this year to end the state’s involvement. in the program.
The program was also the subject of an interim study last year. Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, who requested the study, said the goals were laudable, but he said it was important to scrutiny the services and its results.
“When Gov. Keating kicked off the marriage initiative, it was very ambitious,” McCullough said during a hearing in November. “The idea was to reduce our divorce rate in Oklahoma by 25 percent, and quite frankly that was probably an unrealistic goal.”
Sheree Powell, a DHS spokeswoman, said the cut was an example of the agency having to eliminate programs that aren’t considered part of its “core mission.”
“The things and services we offer add value to peoples’ lives and make their lives better,” she said. “But if they are not part of our core mission, like feeding people, helping with temporary assistance for those without jobs and caring for those with disabilities, those are extra things that add value but we can’t do any longer.”
A number of organizations received funding through the initiative. But the bulk of the money went to Public Strategies Inc., which was founded in 1990 by Mary Myrick, a Republican political consultant. The company did not respond to a call seeking comment Wednesday, so it was unclear if the firm plans to continue marriage programs relying on other sources of funding.
Public Strategies had described the Marriage Initiative on its website as “the largest and longest-standing state-level healthy marriage and relationship program in the nation.”