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 four-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 measurable 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.”
In fiscal year 1999, the state Department of Human Services was given approval to spend $10 million in discretionary welfare funds as startup costs for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The program began picking up speed in 2002.
From 2002-13, 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 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 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 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.
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, DHS 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.