Making it stick: Oklahoma’s divorce rate remains high (Tulsa World)

By Julie Delcour, Tulsa World

In 1999, during a garden gala outside the governor’s mansion, Gov. Frank Keating unveiled plans for an ambitious project, the No. 1 family issue of his second term. 

Keating’s goal was to cut the state divorce rate, then the second highest in the nation, by a third in 10 years by establishing the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. 

In 2009, 10 years after Keating lobbed that $10 million OMI bridal bouquet over his shoulder, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing that marriages still weren’t sticking here – Oklahoma had the No. 1 divorce rate in the U.S. 

I’m confident that the OMI has helped a lot of people – not to mention serving as a mini economic engine for the counseling community. Yet Oklahoma remains at the top of the heap in divorce rates. 

It says something when Canada geese seem to have a better track record for preserving unions than half a state’s couples. 

It’s not for lack of tinkering, or in some cases, outright meddling, on the part of many conservative leaders who subscribe to the adage, if at first you don’t succeed, meddle some more. 

So much for limited government. 

Tried it all

Covenant marriages, marriage license discounts after premarital counseling, how-to-hold-it-together videos, Power Points, booklets, classes; most of the aforementioned have been discussed, offered or tried. 

Yet Oklahoma still has a problem and here we go again. Last month Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill aimed at promoting marriage and fighting poverty. House Bill 1908 calls for the Department of Human Services to create a statewide public service campaign promoting marriage as a tool to fight poverty and decrease the likelihood of child poverty. 

“Our society has lost focus on the importance of keeping families together,” said Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, “Countless studies have shown a stable, two-parent household is important for the growth and stability of children. And the economic results are striking – child poverty rates shoot through the roof when marriages end. …” 

Yes, they do, but child poverty rates even among many intact families in Oklahoma have shot through the roof. 

Simple solution?

“Many factors contribute to keeping people in poverty, including low wages, lack of education, mass incarceration, racial discrimination, food insecurity and limited access to health care,” Gene Perry, an Oklahoma Policy Institute analyst, recently wrote. “Yet to hear some tell it, these long-lasting problems have a simple solution: marriage.” 

Out of the more than 200,000 children living in poverty here, a third of them – 70,000 kids – live in married-couple families. And, Perry added, those alarming numbers don’t even reflect the entire magnitude of children in poverty. 

“Research has shown that 200 percent of the poverty line is about the minimum needed to meet a family’s basic needs. Families making less than that are considered low-income, and they are often one layoff or medical emergency away from falling into poverty. If you look at the Oklahoma children in these low-income families, more than half (52 percent) live in two-parent households,” Perry observed. 


A recent Center for Economic and Policy Research study points out that those promoting marriage should be equally concerned over the “invisibility of marital poverty.” 

So, what’s in store for Oklahomans this time around? Is the state going to fix the divorce problem with flashy “Let’s Stay Together” billboards and pithy public service clips wedged between NuWave Oven infomercials? 

Stable homes definitely are a key to helping children avoid joining gangs, dropping out of school, getting pregnant, running away, succumbing to substance abuse and breaking the law. 

The more the state can enhance conditions conducive to creating stable families the better – whether those families include one parent or two in the home. Those steps should include making sure that all Oklahomans have access to health care (see Janet Pearson’s column), that schools have enough staff and programs to help children learn and stay engaged in school, that children with one or more incarcerated parents have a support system, that mental health services are accessible, that people are trained for jobs and that more jobs are available. 

Admittedly, that’s a very tall order. 

Very leery

Most reasonable people support reducing Oklahoma’s high divorce rate. Yet I count myself among those who are leery of leaders who think preservation of marriage is a cure-all – more important than, say, keeping people healthy or alive through affordable and accessible health care or helping people train and find work that pays a living wage. 

Financial problems, OMI has said, are a leading cause of divorce in the state, not surprising in a state with a long history of high poverty rates – at least 15th highest in the country. 

If Oklahoma’s leaders can fix that then maybe the divorce rate will fix itself.



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