Much can be learned from the history and ongoing development of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. Documenting and assessing the OMI experience can yield lessons for other states attempting similar large initiatives to strengthen marriage and provide feedback to the OMI itself. This evaluation had two main objectives as it addressed the specific research questions listed in Chapter I. The first aim was to document what the OMI is: its origins, the process by which it built its vision and support, its overarching philosophy, its use of research for guidance, its choice of a service model as vehicle for change, and the goals it has enunciated for changing systems and culture. The second aim was to assess the OMIs accomplishments and their implications, focusing on the extent of agency, volunteer, and participant engagement, as well as the challenges encountered along the way. Beyond answers to those research questions, it is useful, in conclusion, to reflect on the lessons that can be gleaned from this assessment of the OMI experience, and to look ahead to other forms of evaluation that can sharpen our understanding of the effects of a broad initiative like the OMI.
Although our focus in this concluding chapter is on assessing OMI accomplishments and identifying lessons from them, we first briefly summarize the history documented in this study:
- Origins: In the late 1990s, a confluence of emerging public policy concerns and research gave rise to what is now the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The 1996 welfare reform legislation that established TANF included objectives related to family structure, including an increase in two-parent families and a reduction in the number of nonmarital births. Around the same time, among social scientists, a research consensus was forming about the benefits to children of growing up in families with two married parents. And a state economic report in 1998 suggested that, among other steps, an increased attention on family and social conditions might indirectly improve the states prospects for economic growth. These social conditions included a divorce rate that was the second highest in the nation.
- Building vision and support: Oklahoma recognized that the idea of a state sponsored effort to support marriage would be new and unfamiliar. To move forward, the OMI worked step by step to build support and credibility for the effort. High ranking political officials including the governor, a key cabinet secretary, and the director of DHS put marriage on the agenda by announcing ambitious goals and holding presentations and conferences with representatives of state institutional and organizational sectors to ask how they would like to participate. The OMIs leaders also brought in research experts and supporters to stimulate interest, address skeptics, and build awareness.
- OMI philosophy: The OMIs overarching goal is to strengthen families by reducing divorce and nonmarital childbearing, thereby enhancing the well-being of children. The OMI believes that the best way to achieve this goal is to improve the publics relationship and marriage skills. Improving these skills is expected to increase the likelihood that marriages will succeed, so that more children grow up with their two married parents. Information about marriage and relationship skills is also expected to improve the chances that unmarried couples and singles will choose to raise their children in the context of a healthy and stable marriage. Change in these individual-level behaviors is expected to eventually culminate in large-scale social change across the state.
- The vehicle for change: To reach its goals for broad change, the OMI chose to implement a marriage education program. Like other healthy marriage initiatives, the OMI had to consider two objectives in choosing a curriculum: achieving consistency in method and message, and using a curriculum well suited to the particular local setting and circumstances of participants. The OMI addressed this issue by adopting PREP® as a standard and subsequently adapting it in various ways to different populations. To create broad accessibility to marriage education, the OMI decided to build the states capacity to deliver workshops by training staff at public and private institutions with statewide infrastructure, and by training individual volunteers to deliver workshops in their local communities.
- Goals for changing systems and culture: With one of the highest divorce rates in the nation, the OMI seeks to change the way its residents think about marriage and divorce. It hopes to help the public understand that skills can be learned and applied to develop, maintain, and improve committed relationships and marriage. Building awareness of this, and awareness that workshops are readily accessible for learning these skills, the OMI hopes to prepare unmarried individuals and couples for marriage and encourage distressed married couples to seek help before turning to divorce. The OMI also aspires to change the policies and practices of public and private agencies and institutions, the attitudes and behaviors of their staff in interaction with the populations they serve, and the ways in which the aspects of system and culture might affect behavioral outcomes of ultimate interest relationships, marriage, and divorce. The OMI recognizes that these ambitious goals, at the level of institutions and the public, are likely to take some time to be achieved even with the strongest implementation efforts.
- Use of research: Almost from its inception, the OMI has been guided by a panel of state and national experts on marriage, divorce, and low-income families. This interdisciplinary group has contributed to development of the initiative, by sharing cutting-edge research findings, acting as a sounding board for new ideas, and conducting research to explore the potential for new OMI programs. To establish a baseline against which future progress might be compared, the group led the development of the first statewide survey on attitudes and behavior related to marriage and divorce. Annual meetings with the DHS director keep the group focused on program and policy-relevant issues and provide a forum for discussing progress and future steps.
In the remainder of this final chapter we summarize the OMIs achievements to date in reaching the Oklahoma population and engaging institutions and communities. Next we identify major lessons from the OMI experience, particularly with respect to features of the initiative that seem to have affected its implementation success. We then reflect on implications that the OMI experience has for the sustainability of Oklahomas efforts and for those elsewhere interested in replicating the initiative or implementing a similar effort. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how future evaluations might help us learn more about the impact of the OMI on Oklahomas families and children.