A legislative study reviewed progress made by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative gave legislators a window into the program’s successes and future endeavors.
There is broad consensus across the nation about the negative consequences of high rates of family instability and related economic insecurity.
According to Kid’s Count data, Oklahoma ranks 39th in child well-being, with 25 percent of children living in poverty and 36 percent of children raised in single parent families. Further, the national cost to taxpayers when stable families fail to form is significant – estimated at $112 billion annually, according to the annual “State of Our Unions” report produced by the Institute for American Values. Despite these sobering statistics, Oklahoma leaders believe that Oklahoma families can be healthy again and are focused on creating innovative solutions to improve marriages, families, and child well-being.
The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, also known as Project Relate Oklahoma is a research-based strategy to improve child well-being by creating stable families through relationship-strengthening skills. The majority of PRO’s Oklahoma Marriage Initiative funding is directed toward and aligned with the needs of vulnerable families served by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and other agencies, including couples who have children with disabilities, foster and adoptive parents, financially vulnerable new parents, incarcerated individuals, and TANF recipients.
Kendy Cox of Public Strategies said that the program is focusing on getting to the root of problems that the state is tackling through its safety net programs, and is building a capability to address a variety of populations and is continually refining its services based on the latest research.
According to a 2008 Institute for American Values study, increasing family stability by even 1 percent can result in $43 million of savings for state government. Most of the program’s services, except for Family Expectations, which is more comprehensive, cost about $12.50 per person per hour, according to Cox.
Family Expectations, the more expensive program, was analyzed in a federal randomized controlled trial study showed a 20 percent increase in family stability over a control group during a three-year period.
A 2013 Family Relations report that looked at state cost savings from prevention efforts estimated about a $129 million in annual savings from small percentage improvements in family stability.
“Oklahoma has invested in the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, and the research says that this investment pays off exponentially as families become more stable and need fewer artificial supports in the future,” Cox said.
Cox said the program is embedded in other state services and much of the training received by participants has positive byproducts for other services as, for example, skills are consistent with those shown to reduce child abuse and neglect. The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative also has a prison program, in which inmates who want to marry while in state custody must undergo pre-marital education. Moving forward, one of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative’s new endeavors is to help couples who are already in crisis, rather than solely focusing on prevention.
“We have been so focused on prevention throughout the years, that we have not thought enough about the specific needs of couples in crisis,” Cox said. “Legislative efforts last session brought that idea to our attention and we now have begun offering forgiveness and reconciliation services.”
State Rep. Mark McCullough, who requested the study, said he was pleased to learn about how the program is progressing.
“We heard today about the OMI’s continued success at providing premarital education to Oklahomans, a service that greatly improves a couple’s chances of marriage success,” said McCullough, R-Sapulpa. “We heard about their prison program, which is a requirement for any inmate seeking to get married while incarcerated. I am proud to be a supporter of OMI and the fact that it is a strong anti-poverty program in that married couples statistically have greater economic means than single individuals.”