In the late 1990s the State of Oklahoma, recognizing the economic and social consequences of its high rates of divorce and non-marital childbearing, undertook an innovative strategy to strengthen families. At the direction of the Governor, the state initiated an effort to reduce divorce and decrease non-marital childbearing. This pioneering effort became the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI), now the nations longest running and most comprehensive set of programs to strengthen marriage. Although many communities and a few states have begun activities to support marriage, facilitated in part by the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative of the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, Oklahoma was the first state committed to making marriage and relationship education services accessible in every county in the state and to citizens from all walks of life.
By giving OMI a broad mission to strengthen and improve relationships, the creators and leaders of the initiative hope to create widespread social change with respect to marriage and divorce. They expect that helping people develop better relationship skills will prevent the kind of marital distress that leads to divorce, prepare unmarried individuals for a healthy marriage, and reduce the number of children who grow up in single parent households, thereby improving the wellbeing of Oklahomas children and their families. As the Initiatives services become more widely available, known and used, OMI leaders anticipate that changes in norms and attitudes about marriage will follow, strengthening the institution of marriage at the individual and community level.
In 2005, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR) to conduct a process evaluation of the OMI, focusing on three primary goals:
- To document and chronicle the conception, development, and implementation of the initiative
- To analyze the OMIs program strategy and understand as well as possible the consequences of the implementation approaches taken
- To identify lessons and implications for both the continuation of the OMI and the development of marriage initiatives in other states.
To fulfill these goals, the MPR study team explored the evolution of the OMI from beginning to present. The evaluation examined the context in which the OMI developed, OMI strategies for implementing services for a variety of population sectors, the role of research and information in the design, implementation, and expansion of the initiative, and the initiatives strategies for changing the systems and culture within which it operates.
This process evaluation is intended to provide information about the OMI model and implementation experiences for policymakers, practitioners, and researchers. It differs from an outcome or impact evaluation in that it is not designed to assess the effect of the initiative on Oklahomas families, children, or communities. It is likely that any effect which an initiative like OMI might have on divorce rates, attitudes towards marriage, or other social indicators would take some time to occur. Detecting such effects, moreover, would require a different kind of research design well beyond the intended scope of this study to avoid confusing the effects of other factors and trends with those of the OMI itself. However, information from the OMI experience may be useful in informing similar emerging initiatives in other states and communities, addressing such matters as replicability.
This report presents a comprehensive look at the key findings from MPRs process evaluation. The remainder of this introductory chapter describes the priorities and research questions of the study, provides an overview of the evaluations methodological approach, and outlines the organization of the overall report.