It’s been 15 years since the launch of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, a state-run program that has spent more than $70 million in federal money (most of which has come from the state’s federal welfare funds) attempting to slash the state’s divorce rates. And despite the money pouring into the “Hip Hop + Change Relationship Assembly” and “Hollaback Relationship Workshop,” both divorce—and poverty—rates continue to climb statewide.
Indeed, according to 2012 Census data, Oklahoma has the third highest divorce rate in the country. The numbers suggest money is being squandered on the initiative, and some Oklahoma politicians have publicly acknowledged its shortcomings. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently told the non-profit Oklahoma Watch that 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.”
But other Republican state leaders are pushing new measures to back the initiative. Last week, Rep. Arthur Hulbert filed a bill that would force couples to wait six months after filing for divorce to legally dissolve a marriage. “I feel like we have a bill that will help strengthen families and give them time to rethink reconciliation,” Hulbert said. “I believe marriages have value, and I think society only benefits if we strengthen the family.”
Another bill filed this session would eradicate “incompatibility” as grounds for ending a marriage—the “no-fault divorce”—because apparently couples should be able to work out their “irreconcilable differences.” (One Oklahoma judge pointed out to the Muskogee Phoenix that divorces “would take a lot longer, cost a lot more money, and tie up the courts” if the bill passed.)
And last November, the state signed into law House Speaker T.W. Shannon’s measure to introduce public service announcements on the benefits of marriage, promoting the initiative as an effective way of combating poverty. “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 Oklahomans,” Shannon said of the PSAs, which are scheduled for broadcast in mid- to late-2014.
If we need further proof that Oklahoma lawmakers may be motivated by religious extremism, state Rep. Mike Turner has proposed banning marriage altogether to ensure that same-sex marriage remains illegal in the state without violating the U.S. Constitution. “[My constituents are] willing to have that discussion about whether marriage needs to be represented by the state at all,” the baby-faced Turner told local reporters. Clearly poverty is not the only reason state reps are attempting to meddle with marriage laws.
Poor socioeconomic conditions have long been linked to high divorce rates in the South, but a new study challanges that theory, suggesting conservative Christian culture throughout the region is to blame for establishing “social institutions” that “decrease marital stability.” The study, which will be published later this month in the American Journal of Sociology, cites abstinence-only sex education and pressure to start families at a young age among factors contributing to growing divorce and poverty rates.
So how much taxpayer money will the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative hemorrhage to no effect until Oklahomans—and the federal government—call its bluff? How many new laws are required in Oklahoma to “save” the institution of marriage? It’s time for conservatives in the state, who generally desire limiting government spending and undue government infringement on personal freedoms, to start acting like conservatives: stop wasting taxpayer money and stop telling people how to live their lives.