BETTY ANN BOWSER: Twice divorced and now on welfare, Alice Burnette is trying to make a new life for herself. She attends computer classes paid for by the county at a technical school in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
Norma Battice has been married three times. This single mother of two sons is also on welfare, and she would be the first one to tell you that when it comes to the men in her life, she's made some pretty dreadful choices.
NORMA BATTICE: I tend to go for the same sort of person that's not so great. You know, I mean, I tend to fall into categories that I, you know, need to learn that this isn't the right place to look for men, or perhaps -- they're all working men; they just have some problems, like it could be drinking, you know, would be one.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Has that been a problem in the past?
NORMA BATTICE: Yes, it has. And some abuse, abuse, a little bit of abuse has been in there.
TEACHER: The actual name of the program is Prep.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Now a new marriage and relationship education program called prep will be offered to Battice and Burnette as part of routine welfare services in Potawatamie County, about 35 miles from Oklahoma City.
TEACHER: It take relationships, and it looks at them in depth, about how people interact, and it enhances them. It gives you kind of resources that you can pull out of the back of your head whenever issues or problems come up.
NORMA BATTICE: A lot of us are single...
NORMA BATTICE: And we're not really looking to another relationship, which is, you know, going to school and trying to better our lives.
NORMA BATTICE: Well, how is this going to help us?
TEACHER: Well, the program really will give you some skills to wear if you had a relationship-- and I'm speaking of husband/boyfriend relationship -- it'll give you some background so that, hopefully, whenever you start into a relationship, you can start it off kind of on the right track.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The idea is that if welfare recipients were trained to make better choices about relationships, they might not need welfare in the first place.
In fact, in Oklahoma, which has the second highest divorce rate in the country, Governor Frank Keating thought such a program made sense for everyone, so it became part of a statewide marriage initiative he started three years ago. Keating was also struck with data that linked divorce to poverty.
GOV. FRANK KEATING: Divorce is impoverishing, so if we can say, hey, listen, make sure you know this is the right guy that you're getting married to, or the right gal. Take a course before you're married, realize this is a lifetime contract, maybe we can hold two people together, and in effect provide a society an opportunity to make more money, because two can live a lot more prosperously than one.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: All over the state, hundreds of volunteers are being trained at government expense in how to teach Prep to Oklahomans.
SPOKESMAN: But there are reasons why government has a vested interest in marriage.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The money comes from a pot of $10 million the state gets from the federal government to implement welfare reform. The governor's goal is to reduce divorce among all couples in the state one-third by 2010.
MAN: When we are having trouble communicating, we will engage the speaker/listener technique.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although none of these couples are on welfare, they all took advantage of a two-day Prep course offered at a local Baptist church in Shawnee.
MAN: Well, we can speak or listen ourselves right into emotional divorce if we don't take time to have fun, if I don't treat her like a friend.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bob and Marquetta Williams were there to learn how to talk to each other better. She's been divorced three times; this is his first marriage. And they really want their relationship to work. So they were asked to do an exercise: Plan a dream vacation.
BOB WILLIAMS: One concern I would have about your dream vacation is how much time you would have relaxing knowing that the girls would demand a lot of your time.
MARQUETTA WILLIAMS: So you think I might have trouble getting that relaxation? I'm looking for a dream vacation with the children along.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: A big bone of contention between the two is time: How much for him, how much for her, and how much for her two children from a previous marriage.
MAN: The discussion kind of became about...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: With the help of Prep counselors Shawn and Amber Crawley, the Williamses worked out a compromise before the discussion escalated into a shouting match. That, says Prep co-developer Scott Stanley, is the whole idea.
SCOTT STANLEY, Co-Director, Center for Marital and Family Studies: When it really comes down to it, couples that do well over time can talk without fighting about their difficult issues. And the couples that don't do well over time can't. Now, there's many other things that various studies would tell us are risk factors, and study after study shows that couples that handle their conflicts poorly are at whoppingly greater risk for not making it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: If President Bush has his way, the Oklahoma program could go nationwide. He has made marriage education part of his welfare reform proposal this year.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: So my Administration will give unprecedented support to strengthening marriages. Under the plan that I'm submitting, up to $300 million a year will be available to support innovation and to find programs, which are most effective. You see, strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children, and stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Under the Bush plan, states could apply for federal funds to develop marriage education programs like Oklahoma's. Welfare recipients might get credit for attending classes as part of their required 30-hour work week. Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Easely is opposed to any kind of program, federal or state.
KEVIN EASLEY, Oklahoma State Senator: I see it as promoting motherhood and apple pie at taxpayer expense. I think what has happened here is this money, $10 million, has been set aside for a big government program that in fact could be used for necessity items... more items that would be more of a necessity, like child care, heating assistance, low-income heating assistance-- things like that that would really matter to welfare recipients, as opposed to marriage counseling consultants.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The vast majority of clergy in the state support the marriage initiative. Hundreds signed a pledge refusing to marry couples without premarital counseling. But Reverend Robin Meyers was uncomfortable with it, and refused to sign.
REV. ROBIN MEYERS, Mayflower Congregational Church: How bizarre that conservatives would be recommending that the government get into the love business?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: He's pastor of the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma city.
REV. ROBIN MEYERS: I have doubts about its constitutionality-- that is, separation of church and state. I have some problems about funding private counseling services and so forth with tax dollars. I also, at a deeper level, and as a result of working with couples, preparing them for marriage and working with them as they considered whether they were going to stay married, is that we're dealing with a mysterious, kind of intangible thing called love that the government should not be using money to try to manipulate.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mary Myrick's public strategies company who was hired by the state to implement the marriage initiative. She says the government already is involved in the institution.
MAYR MYRICK, President, Public Strategies: I mean, when you go to get married, you usually go to the courthouse to get your marriage license. If you would like to get a divorce, the government is going to tell you under what terms you can get a divorce, under what terms you can get remarried, how much you'll pay to see your child. While you're married, the government tells you how much taxes you'll pay, based on whether or not you're marriage is current or not.
So there are all kinds of ways that the government is already involved in marriage. So we looked at that and said, we'd like to do something more constructive and more positive to help families form and be sustained.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Critics of marriage education for welfare clients are not just found in Oklahoma. On the national scene, some have accused the federal government of proposing a federal dating service, something the government's top welfare reform official denies.
WADE HORN, Assistant Secretary, HHS: I have no interest in running a federal dating service. I have no interest in saying to somebody who's a single mom or a single dad, "You have to get married, or you'll have to get married." That is not the point.
The point is to say to those couples who are either already married or thinking about getting married-- that is, marriage is a choice that they have made for themselves already-- to give them information about how to build a strong and healthy marriage.
TEACHER: What the initiative is all about...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Research shows that couples who go through Prep are more likely to have happy marriages and stay married longer, but it has never been applied on a massive basis to the welfare population, and developer Stanley isn't sure how that's going to work.
SCOTT STANLEY: I do want to be really clear. A lot of this is new ground, and that means it's not exactly a new thing for government to go into an area without fully understanding what it's doing. So they're going to have challenges, some of which they don't know yet, some of which were... you know, we knew to expect, and some of which we're learning as we go.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It may be years before anyone knows if the Oklahoma marriage initiative works. Meanwhile, researchers at the state university are tracking public attitudes about marriage and divorce.