Oklahoma has spent tens of millions of tax dollars in the last decade on a program to strengthen families and family values, but there's scant evidence to show if it's had any impact.
The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative was created in 1999 by then Governor Frank Keating in an effort to combat poverty in the state by reducing the divorce rate. The goal was to cut divorce by a third by 2010.
Just the opposite has happened. Mirroring national trends, divorce in Oklahoma has increased, while marriage has declined.
The administrator of OMI, Public Strategies, abandoned Keating's goal long ago (in 2002), saying it was simply unattainable.
"We've realized it's not just about the divorce rate," said Kendy Cox, director of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative since 2004.
Cox says the challenges to successful marriage continue to multiply, with more couples choosing co-habitation, and more children being born out of wedlock.
"Which is why we have diversified and focused on how we can help couples and individuals strengthen their relationships all along the life cycle," Cox explained.
The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative offers workshops and training in communications and relationship skills, free of charge. To date, OMI has provided services to 350,000 Oklahomans.
"Every day," stated Cox, " we hear feedback from families who have attended our services that this is beneficial to their relationship."
Such anecdotes, however, seem to be the only evidence of the Initiative's success. There's no empirical data, and that concerns U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who questions the use of federal funds for OMI and similar programs in other states.
In a statement, Sen. Coburn said programs that promote marriage "oftentimes fail to reach measurable goals and instead send precious tax dollars to well-connected companies that thrive off government contracts."
Public Strategies, a for-profit PR and consulting firm, got the contract to administer OMI in 2001. It received about $70 million from FY 2002 through FY 2012. $58 million of that came from DHS and was originally intended to support low-income Oklahomans through the TANF program.
Sen. Coburn further stated, marriage is an institution that should be honored and supported, "but promoting marriage this way is not the responsibility of federal taxpayers."
At OMI, Kendy Cox says their research shows that Oklahomans believe in the importance of the services they offer.
"They are really less concerned about where the funding comes from and more concerned about the availability, the access, and that they are free of charge."
Cox believes, with time, there will be hard numbers to prove that it's cost-effective to spend money on programs that promote strong relationships, rather than on court costs and other services to handle the fallout from broken relationships.
*This story was written in partnership with Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit organization that does investigative journalism on public policy issues. A more in-depth version of this story will be available on Sunday, December 1.