Oklahoma's State-Run Marriage Program Surviving Budget Cuts, For Now

Sunday, March 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The biggest budget crisis in the state's 95-year history has hacked away at everything from prisons to health care to education.

But, at least for now, the most extensive state-run marriage program in the nation has escaped the chopping block.

Fans of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative would like to bust out statistics proving that the hundreds of couples taking advantage of free workshops are bringing down Oklahoma's divorce rate, the second-highest in the country - better only than Arkansas.

Problem is, it's too soon to tell. It takes decades to evaluate the divorce rate, and state and federal officials aren't even keeping track of it anymore.

"There is very little hard evidence," said David Blakenhorn, president of the New York marriage think tank, Institute for American Values. "I like this program and I really hope that it does succeed. But it can't really be shown that it's working in Oklahoma right now."

The latest statistics, from a 1994 government study, show Oklahoma has 6.7 divorces per 1,000 residents per year, compared with a national rate of 4.6. Experts blame the fact that Oklahomans are poor and marry young.

The only way to gauge the marriage initiative, which will cost $2.7 million this fiscal year, is by how many people are participating. Those numbers seem promising.

Oklahoma has held more than 220 workshops, trained more than 500 workshop leaders and counted 12,000-plus people at seminars - though some of those were repeats.

No other state has jumped into marriage as much as Oklahoma, but some think the approach is catching on across the country. Mary Myrick, program manager of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, said she gets dozens of calls from states and communities curious about the program.

"I think in the next year you'll see a number of states begin to do this," she said. "Most people are in the early stages."

Four other states - Arizona, Michigan, Utah and West Virginia - are spending federal welfare funds to keep marriages from falling apart. But no state is spending as much as Oklahoma, where former Gov. Frank Keating pledged $10 million. Oklahoma will spend $5.4 million by the end of this fiscal year.

Arizona comes the closest, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That state's $1.15 million program offers workbooks and vouchers to married or cohabitating couples who want to attend communication skills classes.

Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest, which administers the bulk of Arizona's marriage workshops, taught 115 couples last year and hopes to reach about 300 this year, said program director Dick Staats. The workshops give couples communication skills they can use to work out disagreements before they turn into big fights.

"The word out today is that it's skills that people need," Staats said.

The saving grace of these marriage programs might be that they rely heavily on federal money. The funds spent on setting up workshops, training leaders and buying workbooks come from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal-state partnership intended to reduce the number of people on welfare.

Oklahoma pledged to spend $43.2 million in TANIF endeavors this year. In turn, the federal government doles out $103.3 million to Oklahoma, said George Johnson, spokesman for the state Department of Human Services.

"It's all or nothing," he said. "If we don't spend $43.2 million in state dollars, we don't receive $103.3 million in federal dollars. It's not a program that you would want to lose because you would lose all the money associated with it."

That doesn't mean Oklahoma's marriage program is in the clear. Gov. Brad Henry and lawmakers still are picking through the state budget, now $678 million in the hole, looking for ways to cut costs.

The Governor's spokeswoman, Kym Koch, said Henry will give the marriage initiative the same review he is giving every other program. It's too early to know whether it will survive.

"That's getting ahead of ourselves," she said.

Vicki Reynolds, an Oklahoma therapist and workshop leader, knows the program is helping - even if there aren't statistics to prove it. The point, she says, is that people are communicating - they want help.

"Everybody wants to be married to their best friend," she said. "They just don't know how."

The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative also is getting rave reviews from participants.

Suzanne Pham and Edgar Gaytan, who are planning an August wedding, walked away from a February seminar thinking more about their relationship and less about their wedding cake. The young lovebirds are mixing cultural backgrounds - she is Vietnamese-American and he is Mexican-American - and live together, two factors they're concerned might cause problems later.

"We've seen so many people take downfalls," Pham said. "We don't want to be one of those statistics."