For decades, the federal government has funneled millions of dollars to abstinence-based education programs, a move that was allegedly meant to help curb the high incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but instead was more effective at lining the pockets of religious groups with taxpayer dollars. Now, an investigation in Oklahoma is showing that unsurprisingly the same thing is occurring with education programs meant to encourage marriage. Despite massive funding, the rate of divorce in that state is going up, and the number of couples getting married is going down.
The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI) is a nearly 15-year-old project meant to battle poverty by promoting marriage. It’s a common conservative trope that because so many people living in poverty are single mothers with children, if you can simply convince them to marry, then ta-dah! No poverty.
According to the report at News9, the program says it has helped 350,000 Oklahomans since it began back in 1999. “Helped” is a pretty open term, however, since there has been no assessment of how the program actually benefits these people or what constitutes 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,” reports News9. “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.’”
That a far-right “family values” style senator is concerned that such an initiative is a waste of money is a telling sign, and Sen. Coburn is right to be worried. The investigation into OMI showed that it received $70 million in taxpayer dollars in the last decade, with $58 million of it being filtered off the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) budget.
In a state that nearly ran out of formula for low income mothers in October during the government shutdown, that’s a pretty big deal.
Perhaps the biggest irony in the idea of skimming money from TANF funds to promote marriage in order to end poverty is the fact that if the government instead spent the money on other programs — vocational training, subsidized daycare, raising the minimum wage or better health care, not to mention its original purpose, feeding families — there is a greater chance that it could actually have a real effect on the divorce rate via that route. Financial struggles continue to be one of the biggest causes of discourse in a relationship, a factor that plays out not just in marriages but co-habitating couples as well. Couples with less concerns about their money are far more likely to stay together.
Then, of course, there is the biggest elephant in the room: cohabitation. Marriage initiative programs such as the one in Oklahoma promote the idea of opposite sex couples marrying because in that state, that is the only legal relationship available, and without legal standing the financial “advantages” of marriage are not as big. If the state really wants to increase marriage and decrease cohabitation, allowing everyone in their state to be able to legally marry their partners whom they love is an obvious solution, and one that doesn’t cost $10 million a year to promote.
Until the government can come up with approaches to promoting marriage that are both common sense and equitable to all couples, it simply has no business being involved — especially when its role is just to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to groups promoting rigid ideas of the institution by taking funding from real programs that actually provide for the poor.
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