To gain a better understanding of why and how the nations first statewide marriage initiative sprang up in Oklahoma, it may be useful to first review the states demographic characteristics. Oklahomas population is relatively religious, with high numbers of people adhering to the Christian, mostly Protestant, faith. In 2007, about 69 percent of residents reported being evangelical or mainline Protestant 25 percentage points higher than in the nation as a whole while 12 percent reported being Catholic, compared to 24 percent nationally (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2007). Although most marriages in Oklahoma take place under church auspices, the state has had one of the highest divorce rates in the nation (National Center for Health Statistics 1995).
Many Oklahomans live in rural areas, and on average have somewhat lower levels of education and household income compared to the rest of the nation. Of the states 3.6 million residents, 42 percent live in a non-urban setting; while 58 percent reside within one of the states two metropolitan areas: Oklahoma City and Tulsa (U.S. Census Bureau 2007a, 2007b). Approximately 22 percent have a bachelors degree or higher, about five percentage points below the national average; and in 2006 the median household income was approximately $38,770, about $10,000 less than the national figure (U.S. Census Bureau 2006a). The vast majority of Oklahomans identify themselves as white, but many are American Indian. Eight percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native; another eight percent are Black or African American (about five percentage points less than the national average) (U.S. Census Bureau 2008).
Oklahomas interest in a statewide initiative grew from emerging public policy concerns and research about the consequences of family structure. At the federal level, the 1996 welfare reform legislation that established Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) included two objectives related to family structure: reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. There was also a growing body of research confirming the benefits to children of growing up in families with two married parents. At the same time, a state economic report suggested that along with strengthening education and taking other steps that could directly improve productivity, Oklahoma should increase its attention to family and social conditions that might indirectly affect the states prospects for economic growth (Holmes et al. 1998). These conditions included high rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing: at the time, Oklahomas divorce rate was the second highest in the nation (National Center for Health Statistics 1995).
In response to these trends and policy concerns, key state leaders concluded that addressing the divorce rate was an important priority for Oklahoma. In 1998, Oklahomas then-cabinet secretary for Health and Human Services, Jerry Regier, encouraged then-governor Frank Keating to take action to strengthen the states families. In January 1999, Governor Keating gave public recognition to the issue by announcing the initiative in his state-of-the-state address, and boldly setting a goal of reducing the divorce rate by one-third by the year 2010.