OK Policy Roundtable: Should the state of Oklahoma be promoting marriage?

OK Policy recently featured a guest blog post from Scott Stanley about the Family Expectations Program, which is part of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. As part of the job application process, OK Policy’s two recently hired policy analysts also created posts in response to the question, “Should the state of Oklahoma be promoting marriage as a way to reduce poverty?” Read on to see both posts below, or you can jump straight to Gene’s post here or Kate’s post here.

Can we wed our way out of poverty?

by Gene Perry

In state rankings, Oklahoma too often appears near the top in categories that we’d rather not.

Not least among those are divorce rate (6th highest), teen birth rate (5th highest), poverty (7th highest), and child well-being (44th worst).

To some, the first two rankings are to blame for the second.  A number of researchers see decline in marriage as the primary cause of poverty.  Under this theory, the best remedy for lower-income individuals attempting to juggle work and child care responsibilities is a two-parent family.

Oklahoma has taken the lead in putting this idea into practice.  Since 1999, the state spent more than $10 million on counseling and education programs with the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI).  Funding comes mostly from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, commonly known as welfare.

In a New Yorker article from 2003, journalist Katherine Boo chronicled the experience of two Oklahoma City women enrolled in this program.  While anecdotal, Boo’s story provides a powerful glimpse into the complexity of problems faced by some of the poorest Oklahomans.

These women earnestly hope for a better life, and they are willing to work hard for it.  Yet they are held back by limited access to transportation or a phone, unaffordable health care, and a lack of college advising on tuition assistance.  While they understand the value of a supportive marriage partner, it is unclear whether they can find a man with the same commitment in their community.  Even with a partner, the inability to attain stable employment may prevent their escape from economic hardship.

The statistical case is murky as well.  Poverty is certainly more prevalent among single parent families. In 2009, it was 5.8 percent for married couples, compared to 29.9 percent for female householders with no husband present.  Yet many single parents are able to rise out of poverty when other circumstances are improved.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the poverty rate was just 8 percent for single mothers with some college education working full-time.

Low marriage rates may be more a symptom than a cause for poverty, when marriages frequently end over disputes about money.  And if those disputes become abusive, a battered spouse and children are much better off escaping that environment, even if it means reduced income.

On the upside, OMI does not simply encourage marriage without teaching the skills to make it work.  Programs emphasize relationship management and communication.  Through the Family Expectations program, the state is also reaching out to low-income unmarried parents by providing relationship skills education and family support services.  Initial results show increased relationship happiness and more constructive conflict behavior.

Leaders across party lines seem to agree.  Federal funding for marriage initiatives began under President George W. Bush and have continued under President Obama.  On the home page of the federal government’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is a quote from Obama, writing in The Audacity of Hope:

Finally, preliminary research shows that marriage education workshops can make a real difference in helping married couples stay together and in encouraging unmarried couples who are living together to form a more lasting bond. Expanding access to such services to low income couples, perhaps in concert with job training and placement, medical coverage, and other services already available, should be something everybody can agree on.

At a time when solutions that “everybody can agree on” seem rare in politics, we should think very seriously about those that do exist. This program doesn’t leave us off the hook for ensuring affordable child care, reducing unemployment, and providing access to health care and transportation for low-income Oklahomans.  It would be tragically counter-productive if putting money into marriage promotion means a cut in child care or job training.  But while marriage promotion by itself is no cure-all, any initiative that promotes conflict resolution and a supportive community can be part of the solution.

Can’t Buy Me Love: Marriage promotion and poverty persistence in Oklahoma

by Kate Richey

While it is impossible to describe conclusively what ‘causes’ poverty, there is decades of research into the factors that contribute to its persistence.  Is ‘singleness’ one of them?  Federal marriage promotion efforts beginning with Clinton-era welfare reforms and culminating in the Bush administrations’ $750 million dollar Healthy Family Initiative relied on the assumption that married adults generate more income and create better environments for child-rearing.  Oklahoma’s program, Family Expectations, counsels both married and unmarried parents in the state, but believes that there are consistent advantages for children raised by both of their parents.  However, the best and most recent evidence suggests that the advantages a two-parent household provides children are overstated and that marriage does not alleviate poverty.

Proponents argue that it is in society’s interest to promote marriage because poverty and unmarried childbearing are costly to society and marriage provides a laundry list of benefits to families and communities.  Sociologist Susan Brown sees a classic chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: “That is, marriage does not really make people happier, healthier, and more financially secure. Instead, happy, healthy, secure individuals are more likely to marry in the first place.”  Which came first, the singleness or the poverty?

Participation in Oklahoma’s Family Expectations program had no effect on parents’ wages, employment, poverty status or ability to meet housing expenses.  A stronger relationship is apparently not a higher-earning one.  A comprehensive University of Georgia study of 12,000 people spanning several decades found that marrying increases the likelihood of poverty for many single mothers and their children:

The results indicate that ending a marriage increases the chances of both getting out of poverty and getting back into poverty, but the chance of the latter is greater than the former. Therefore, for mothers in our sample, marital disruption lead to a greater odds of leaving poverty while non-poor women in our sample experiencing marital disruption lead to an even greater odds of reentering poverty. It appears that there might be two groups of low-income women, those whose spouse contributes significantly to the families’ economic circumstances and those whose spouse may be an economic drain on the household.

Much of the research on single parents in poverty relies on decades of racialized assumptions about the dysfunctions of non-white family structures.  The 1965 Moynihan Report has dominated the research agenda on marriage and poverty, citing the higher incidence of African American single-mother families as the key contributor to socioeconomic disadvantage. According to Susan Brown, this vein of research ignores the “critical role of structural factors, such as discrimination and barriers to employment and was predicated on the assumption that unmarried childbearing led to poverty, as opposed to the reverse.”

One promising aspect of the Oklahoma approach, unlike some other states, is that the Family Expectations (FE) program appears to be proactive about screening participants for domestic abuse:

Before making a determination of FE eligibility, intake specialists assessed the likelihood of intimate partner violence being present in the relation- ship. Using a screening tool developed in collaboration with national experts and Oklahoma’s domestic violence coalition, each woman was screened separately from her partner. If there was evidence of violence that could be aggravated by FE participation, the woman was provided with resources and information for achieving safety and the couple was deemed ineligible for FE. FE also developed a protocol to identify signs of intimate partner violence among participating couples and established a set of procedures for how to respond if such signs were detected.

Encouraging adults to remain in abusive domestic arrangements is irresponsible and puts the lives of both parents and children at risk.  Patterns of domestic abuse are cyclical and there is no evidence that even abusers who undergo intensive and targeted therapy change their behavior.  Oklahoma’s incidence of domestic abuse, particularly fatal incidences of abuse, is well above the national average.

Evidence-based predictors should guide anti-poverty policy.  Oklahoma social welfare dollars are best spent on efforts that have reliable evaluative criteria and proven results.  A myriad other factors that enhance the economic potential of single mothers – employment, childcare, health care – are easier for the state to address through public policy than the idiosyncratic quagmire of personal relationships.  Family Expectations may have proven that their program is popular with participants and effective at strengthening relationships between parents with children, but unfortunately there is still precious little evidence that those healthier relationships translate into any material improvements in the quality of life of their children.  Relationship counseling is and should remain the task of social institutions (faith groups, extended families, social networks) and non-profits with the expertise, proximity, and flexibility to be effective.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

5 thoughts on “OK Policy Roundtable: Should the state of Oklahoma be promoting marriage?

  1. I’d like to know more about how unconventional families like mine fit into the statistics, and why I should be changing that setup because a bunch of legislators told me that a piece of paper from a judge means that I would have a magical Parenting Skill Set.

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