Making Marriage Matter

Report Marriage and Family

Making Marriage Matter

September 27, 2000 21 min read
The Honorable Frank Keating

It's nice to be at Heritage and it is wonderful to see such interest in marriage. I'm going to talk today about what we're attempting to do in Oklahoma to strengthen families and strengthen marriage. I'd like to begin by mentioning the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City that occurred less than three months after I became governor. The reason I bring up that tragedy is because it was a precursor, if you will, to this marriage initiative. I was so impressed with the fact that something that awful could be handled that well, that people could come together on their own and work together to save lives and save property without being lined up and told what to do by the government.

Shortly after that, we had an especially brutal killing involving a child by the name of Ryan Luke. At a press conference, I was asked what I was going to do about it. I appropriately said, as the chief executive of the state, that we were going to have more child-abuse investigators and that we would seek to have these kinds of cases handled in a non-jury environment so we could have a quicker process and the introduction of all the evidence that should be heard by the court.

Then about two weeks later a little boy by the name of Shane Coffman was murdered by a caregiver. Again, the press asked me what was I going to do about it. This time, I said, What can I do about it? What can anybody do about it if family members are intent on preying upon their young, when there is savagery and violence among members of families, when live-in boyfriends are molesting, abusing, and destroying the children of their live-in girlfriends? What can anybody do? These are issues of the heart and of the head that have to be resolved in forums other than government forums.

Shortly thereafter, I had an opportunity to talk to a group of fundamentalist pastors in my state. I mentioned that while we are a believing community--in our state, like many states in the South, 70 percent of our people go to church twice a month or more--we have one of the highest divorce rates in the country. We have a high incidence of out-of-wedlock births. We have violence against the young and the old. We have drug abuse. I asked, What are you saying about these problems in your pulpits? What are you doing about these extremely significant social challenges?

Some months later, I asked the state Chamber of Commerce and our principal economics departments at the University of Oklahoma and at Oklahoma State University to study the question of what is holding our economy back. Not what holds any state back, but what holds our state back. I think every governor wants to know how his or her state can be more competitive with other states and even the rest of the world.

In our state we have made considerable progress in changing the way we do business, and I'm very proud of that, but we needed to do more. Somebody asked me once what it's like to be governor of a state like Oklahoma where two-thirds of your legislature is Democrat. I said it's very much like being the chairman of General Motors and two-thirds of your directors are employees from Ford and they don't want you to sell any General Motors products. It's tough. The partisan system is tough.

In any event, I had been calling for privatization and reduction of government, cutting taxes, and the like. Over the last five and a half years we have reduced the state income tax and we've reduced a whole series of other taxes. We privatized prisons and the university hospital complex. We reduced state employees by about 5 percent.

We also embarked on a very aggressive education reform effort. Charter schools. School choice. We didn't get what we wanted, but strengthening the education curriculum resulted in our receiving an A minus from Education Week. That's the first time we've ever achieved that.

We reduced the welfare rolls by 70 percent, which eventually permitted us to free up some of the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) funds to strengthen marriage. We've done all these things in a very difficult partisan environment, but we've done them because they're the right things to do.

I've felt that these measures were the prescription for prosperity, but they weren't enough. That's why I asked the state chamber and the universities if they would analyze the issue of what holds our state back. They came back with the expected recommendations on the economic ledger side: We have regulatory barriers we need to address. We have an expensive worker's compensation system. We have a tax system that appears to be more universal than it should be. We have a state income tax that's still too high. We're about 70,000 college graduates short.

That is what I had been saying. That is what I had believed. That is what I had been advocating for some years. But then they did something quite remarkable, something I've never seen economic development people do. They turned the page and said there were other factors that were holding us back. "We have too much divorce among families with children. We have too many out-of-wedlock births. We have too much violence and drug abuse."

I don't know about you, but I had never seen an analysis of a state's or a country's economy focusing on those issues. So, my agenda, like theirs, was strictly secular and nonsectarian. My agenda was to bring together the leadership of the state from both parties and the business community and propose that we address in a legislative environment issues like right-to-work, worker's compensation, income tax, and education rigor in order to raise the number of college graduates, but also look at this other dimension: How are we going to address the social issues that hold us back--because they do, in fact, hold us back.

Let me say at the outset that at no time did I or anybody suggest that divorce should not be permitted. Of course, you have to have an outlet for marriages that fail. We know, unfortunately, that not every marriage survives, nor, for that matter, is every marriage meant to survive. People change. Circumstances change.

But one out of two marriages end in divorce in many jurisdictions in my state. In 1998, for example, there were more divorces than marriages in 35 counties.

So, I stood in front of the legislature in my State of the State address and my inaugural address two years ago, and I pondered, "Tell me the goodness, the sense, the wisdom of a system where it is more difficult to get a hunting license than it is to get a marriage license. Tell me the sense of a system where it is easier to get out of a marriage contract involving children than it is to get out of a Tupperware contract."

Many of us who were in legislative positions in the `70s thought that adding mutual incompatibility as a grounds for divorce, making marriages more "throw-awayable" than any other contractual relationship, was a good thing, that it was liberating. Many of us, both right and left, Republican and Democrat, felt that was the right thing to do.

There's an axiom in economics: If you want more of something, subsidize it; if you want less of something, tax it. We decided to make divorce much easier, and, consequently, we got a lot more divorce. According to the economics departments at our two comprehensive universities, we had a lot of poverty in the state because, unfortunately, the result of too much divorce is in many cases children who are more prone to violence and to dropping out of school. There's more drug abuse and other dysfunction in environments like that.

I was on Politically Incorrect some months ago. Bill Maher is a friend, and he's a bright guy, but really he's politically correct. His show usually has one libertarian, three liberals, and one conservative. That's the way Politically Incorrect is. The issue they wanted to raise was the marriage initiative, and I explained that it was a secular message to make our state rich. That simple. To try to do what we can to have people prepared for marriage, to survive a marriage relationship, and to be able to provide a strong economic base for that family unit. One of the guests said, "What business is it of yours to tell me whether I should be married or not married, or whether I can be divorced?" I answered that I wasn't telling him whether he should or should not be married or divorced. That was his decision.

"But remember this," I said, "Right now, we make decisions by state law as to what age you can get married and when you can get married. We require blood tests. If you decide to walk away from your spouse, it is not like walking away from a boyfriend or a girlfriend. You walk away from your spouse, and here come the lawyers. You have judges decide where the children go. You have judges decide who the children can visit. You have judges who don't even know you, don't even know your family, decide how much money you will pay or how much money you will receive. So, the law is very much involved."

The question is how can we as a people, black, white, red, and yellow, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, believer, or nonbeliever, encourage the strength of a relationship that clearly determines whether or not we are prosperous.

We had a major conference at the governor's residence in Oklahoma City. We brought together people from the business community and the social service community to help us focus on things that would help strengthen marriage. Again, I'm not saying that marriages that were meant to fail, that simply shouldn't survive, shouldn't be permitted to be terminated. We understand that those things happen. My family has been buffeted by divorce, as I'm sure many of your families have as well. But it is in the interest of good citizenship to abate this high incidence of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, violence, and drug abuse.

One of the meeting's proposals, which did not take flight, was to remove mutual incompatibility as a grounds for divorce. The legislature simply didn't think that was a great idea. Those who participated in the conference, felt that the other grounds for divorce that have traditionally been in the law--drunkenness, nonsupport, violence, abuse--should obviously remain. People who are subjected to that kind of bestiality or neglect should be able to depart. But mutual incompatibility basically says, I don't like you anymore; I'm leaving--even with a stable full of children, with enormous financial consequences at risk, and with tremendous social costs adjacent to that act. We as a people have permitted it to happen and we've had a huge, huge number of divorces. The legislature, however, would not accept that proposal.

We decided we should make a marriage license cheaper if you attend a course on marriage. They liked that. That was okay. It's hard to imagine Democrats giving up tax revenue, but this time they thought it was a pretty good thing. We also made a suggestion to the faith community. Since 75 percent of the marriages in our state are performed in synagogues, mosques, and churches, we could ask the faith community to have a required course before marriage so that young and not-so-young people could understand the lifetime obligation of the marriage contract.

One Jewish leader in Oklahoma recapped a story as to why he thought such a class would be a pretty good idea. He had sat down with a young couple making arrangements for their wedding. The young man said, "We're going to give this a five-year try." To which he responded, and I'm being a little apocryphal, "Do you own a house?"

"Not yet," said the young man.

"Do you own a car?"


"If you had gone to the bank and told the banker who was going to loan you money, I'll give these payments a three-year try for the car, and maybe a five-year try for the house, do you think he would have loaned you the money?"

It's an easy answer of course: No.

With only a few exceptions, we had virtually every leader of the faith community--the Muslims, the Jews, the Catholics, and the principal Protestant denominations, as well as the independent churches--sign a covenant, a statement, that they will require premarital counseling in their churches, synagogues, and mosques before they marry anyone. The purpose, which is rather dramatic in this society, is to say: This is a lifetime commitment. Honor your spouse and love and care for him or her and understand that your commitment to him or her is a lifetime partnership commitment. Learn about finances. Learn how to fight fairly and learn that arguments, disagreements, are not uncommon events in any marriage.

This initiative has had a very profound impact on commentators and on people in my state. They think it is the right thing to do. Government is not saying you must, but rather you must not. What the chief executive of the state has done is to bring people together to say, let's try to be better, to do better. Let's be a better people.

We're the first state in the union to propose to use some of our TANF funds--the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children money--our welfare money, for the purpose of strengthening marriage. The Congress has permitted it. Welfare reform, which I think, as a governor, was one of the wisest things the Republican Congress has done, has permitted us to say, forcefully, but not in a mean-spirited way, you need to take individual responsibility, you are a human being, you are a special asset, you are a citizen. We together, you and I, should help each other to be independent and responsible.

So, we now have a 70 percent reduction in welfare expenditures in our state. We think that's a very positive thing. But we see frequently that the people who need help the most are those who have been abandoned by their spouse or divorced by their spouse, especially those with children. If we can use some of this money to help uplift marriage, to encourage the survival of marriages, that's a good investment.

Today in the United States, we spend probably $150 billion a year helping single families, but we only spend about $150 million helping intact families. Democrats and Republicans alike should do what we can to strengthen families, and, as a result, strengthen the financial security of families. That's in our best interest because by so doing we make sure that they have the financial resources to educate their children and provide for their retirement.

So, we now have a scholars-in-residence program at Oklahoma State University. We've taken the TANF workers, as well as the public-health nurses in the state, and provided them with an opportunity to sit down and discuss the need to stress as a part of their services to families, particularly very vulnerable new families, that marriage is a lifetime commitment and that you need to be prepared before you get married. Be educated before you're married. Have some money in your pocket before you're married. Don't just do it as a lark. It isn't like buying a car.

I think the public-health and the education communities have been very receptive. Obviously, we are careful as we figuratively walk through these mine fields because there is at the outset--as I noted on Politically Incorrect --some sensitivity to somebody suggesting what another should or should not do with respect to their private affairs. But this is in many aspects a public affair when you're dealing with children who are abused or children who are abandoned, or the need for welfare spending, or other social service expenditures like day care, which obviously are impacted by the rate of divorce and the rate of marriage. I am working with the legislative leadership to nudge them along to try to encourage family survival and to discourage divorce.

A few years ago, I was in Duncan, which is a small community in the south central part of our state. In the course of an appearance before a high school student body, a young girl raised her hand. She asked, "What do you think of out-of-wedlock births?" I said, "I think they're wrong. What's the issue?"

A little twittering began. I noticed that she was out to here.

I have two daughters and I talked to her like a dad. "If I told you I was seven months pregnant, would your answer be any different?" she asked.

"No," I said. "It wouldn't be. You don't have any education. You don't have any money. You don't have a husband. This is not healthy. I would hope that you'd put the child up for adoption."

I didn't want to embarrass her and I didn't. I wanted to treat her with the affection and respect that a father would treat a daughter. After my conversation in front of the student body, the students stood up and applauded, which stunned me. As I was leaving, a young man came over and grabbed my arm and queried if I knew why everybody stood up and applauded. I said, no. He said that no counselor, teacher, or anyone there had ever said that. The pregnant student had made the statement that she wanted to have a child, period, and that was what she was going to do. Not one of them tried to counsel her otherwise.

Every child is in my judgment a special asset, and we need to make sure that every child is strong and secure when he or she begins his life's journey. We can do more of that--not all of that, but more of that--if we secure at the outset of that life's journey a stable family: a mother and a father.

This is not to discourage the breakup of bad homes and bad families, because sometimes that is the best thing to do. Rather, let's encourage the survival of those families, those homes that can survive.

My wife and I have had marriage counseling. We've been married nearly 28 years. Every one of us does change. Our attitudes change. Our approaches and value system will bump in one direction or another on occasion. But I understand my marriage is a lifetime contract, and I try to work through it. I hope that all of us, in government and out, could appreciate and advance that lifetime contract, could encourage us to be a stronger society and certainly a more prosperous society. Thank you very much.

Q & A

Q: If the impetus for this initiative is primarily economic, are there any economic incentives for people to stay married?

A: Obviously, abolishing the marriage tax penalty is a good economic incentive. (That's a plug, by the way.) I also think there is an opportunity for Heritage, for example, and other scholarly institutions, to examine what those incentives could be. A tax system that encourages people to be married and remain married is healthy, but as we begin our walk any suggestions are welcome.

Q: Concerning the GOP platform, do you see any changes this year? For example, do you see a call for a national marriage initiative similar to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative?

A: Obviously, the platform is pretty mature by now. Any suggestion to add anything new probably would be met with some resistance, because it's just too close to the convention. But I think that both parties--and this is not a Republican thing, or a Democrat thing--I think both parties should be more interested in the issues that can bring us together as a people and strengthen our society. Whatever we can do economically as well as socially within the social service and the religious communities we ought to do to bring about less crime, less abuse, less dysfunction, and fewer school dropouts.

Politics, of course, is a part of it. I don't shy away from that. As I said when people ask what's a political guy getting involved in what are really private decisions, I say yes, they're private decisions, but to the extent that these are issues that do impoverish a society we need to debate them and come up with whatever solution is appropriate.

Q: Have you had a chance to talk to your fellow governors at all about this?

A: Yes, we've talked about it quite a bit. As a matter of fact, a number of my fellow governors of both parties are looking at similar programs. I don't know how mature their process is, but they're very supportive. They face the same challenges that I do. It is very expensive to take care of "two" families, and the social costs associated with abuse and neglect and abandonment are very high. Remember that welfare reform, by the way, was embraced heartily by most governors of both parties.

Q: Governor, in the 1996 GOP platform there was one sentence about the catastrophic change in divorce law. It's in the family and society section. I wonder if you thought you could include it this year, since you've been one of those who's exhibited enormous courage on this issue with your state legislature.

In one sentence it said, "We urge state legislatures to review divorce law, to foster the stability of the home, and protect the economic rights of the innocent spouse and children."

A: I think that language is good. As I mentioned in answer to another question, it may be too late or it may already be in there. I have not seen the platform. Governor Thompson from Wisconsin, as you know, has been the chair and he's done a wonderful job. I think that's certainly an appropriate contribution if it can be made.

Q: Can you describe how you plan to spend the $10 million in making this new marriage initiative work?

A: There are a number of things that are under consideration. We have a committee of individuals headed by Jerry Regier, the leading light of the initiative, who's secretary of health and human services in Oklahoma, and the head of the welfare department. Many ideas are being discussed, including training sessions for nurses, for school teachers, and for those individuals on the public side as well as the private who deal with young families and with young children.

For example, we already have an initiative called Children First, where if we see a vulnerable birth, an out-of-wedlock or a very young teenage birth, we assign a public-health nurse to that family. This is an example of where TANF funds could be spent--to help fund a much larger Children First program. If, for example, it's an out-of-wedlock birth, this nurse can talk about reasons for getting married. Another example might be working with married teens who are pregnant--and there are a lot of teen marriages in Oklahoma--and helping them to strengthen these vulnerable relationships, many of which fail because the young people don't have the financial resources or the maturity.

Q: Are you particularly interested in these types of social issues as they apply at the national level to the national economy?

A: Sure. As I said, this is not a Republican issue; this is an American issue. Compared to a number of countries in the world, we have a very high out-of-wedlock birth rate and a very high divorce rate. These are serious challenges to our future, our economic future, and so I'm certainly interested in them at all levels. But I'm just as happy working on them in Oklahoma.

Q: Governor, a lot of advocates for the poor say that the welfare system has built-in economic disincentives for marriage by requiring fathers who marry or cohabit with the mothers of their children who are receiving welfare to then pay back the cost of welfare. I was wondering whether you are considering something that would change that equation in Oklahoma.

A: All of that is on the table. For example, Governor Bush's idea of a fathers' registry is a very good idea. When you have a child born out of wedlock, the father would have to sign on the dotted line or lose the opportunity to have that child as his child. The child could then be adopted successfully by another loving, caring family if the mother so chose, and not have to worry about the father coming back and claiming the child.

These are issues we, ladies and gentlemen, need to talk about and debate and discuss and implement. Not just talk, but take the best and the brightest ideas that will make a difference and implement them in public policy.

Q: A bout 75 percent of welfare mothers are reported to have suffered domestic abuse. Do you think that it is advantageous for them to try and get them to marry the men who have abused them?

A: I must confess, I can't understand why anybody would marry somebody that punches them out all the time. I'd try to get away from that as fast as I could. I have a thing called "Open Door after Four," where people come in and just sit and talk. I remember after one of these child-abuse cases, a young woman came to me, and she showed me a Polaroid photograph of her abused little child. It was a sexually explicit Polaroid photograph.

I asked her, "Who did this?"

"My boyfriend," she said.

"Who's the father? Where is this guy? He ought to be in jail."

"Well, he's living with me."

"Well, who do you care about, him or the child?"

"You mean I can get rid of him?"

"Well, yes, throw him out."

It was just stunning to me that her priorities were so out of sync that the boyfriend was more important than that little vulnerable, innocent child. That's where the education part of this TANF process is so important--to talk basics to many families that aren't families. To say to children who are in school, in health classes, for example, who just don't have any basing in moral values, "Look, every child is precious, every life is precious. Don't touch your neighbor. Don't touch your neighbor's property." For young mothers, "Your most important contribution is to raise this child healthy and successful. That's your obligation."

The Honorable Frank Keating is governor of Oklahoma.


The Honorable Frank Keating