Tahlequah Daily Press

December 4, 2013

Marriage initiative may be a waste of money


staff

TAHLEQUAH — Despite dumping more than $70 million in federal funds into a program designed to reduce Oklahoma’s high divorce rate, the results are discouraging.

This information was revealed through a recent report by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization that focuses on public-policy issues. The first half of this illuminating story appears elsewhere in today’s edition of the Press, and the rest will be published Thursday.

The data should be an eye-opener for anyone who believes throwing money at a problem will make it go away.

The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, launched by Gov. Frank Keating in 1999, was based on the premise that cutting down on divorces would also curtail poverty. Many who would normally look askance at government spending jumped on the bandwagon – especially people of faith, who believe marriage is the fabric that holds societies together.

Unfortunately, statistics don’t bear out the hopeful projections. Since 2000, poverty rates have risen from 13 percent to more than 17 percent. Oklahoma in 2012 had the third-highest divorce rate of any state in the nation, at 13.5 percent. Cohabitation and single-parent families are on the rise here, and across the country. Yet when it comes to per capita federal spending on “promoting healthy relationships and marriage,” Oklahoma is at the very top of the heap.

Despite the program’s dismal showing thus far, many Republican leaders at the statehouse still strongly support it. Others in both parties, however, wonder if they should continue funneling taxpayer dollars into such programs. More than a few lift an eyebrow at the program’s inception, saying it benefited cronies of Keating more than struggling families.

At first, initiative leaders had the ambitious objective of slashing divorce rates by a third within a decade, but by 2002, they had given up on that lofty goal. It’s difficult to quantify any positive effect, but that doesn’t mean advocates won’t keep trying. House Speaker T.W. Shannon introduced a bill last legislative session that would use “discretionary welfare funds”  to pay for public-service announcements to promote marriage. It seems reasonable to ask how, in this age of media over-saturation and constant bombardment with conflicting messages, a series of TV blurbs will work where intensive counseling sessions have failed.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., hit the nail on the head when he said this recently: “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. 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.”

Many Okies may dissent with Coburn’s precise definition of “marriage,” and perhaps even more so when the topic is how to properly care for children. But one thing everyone should agree on: It doesn’t make sense to waste millions of dollars on programs that aren’t successful, especially when reducing poverty is ostensibly central to the plan.

We need to decide which comes first, failed marriages or poverty. When folks can’t put food on the table, it’s hard to think about anything else.