The Return of the Ring

50 Pages Posted: 27 May 2005 Last revised: 20 Apr 2009


In 1996, the United States Congress began its imposition of a marital solution to poverty when it enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ("PRWORA"). Nearly ten years later, Congress has strengthened its commitment to marriage as a cure for welfare dependency with proposals such as the Personal Responsibility, Work, and Family Promotion Act of 2005. If passed, this bill would provide 1.5 billion dollars for pro-marriage programs and require each state to explain how its welfare program will encourage marriage for single mothers who receive public aid. With these proposals, Congress has continued to construct poverty as a private rather than public problem. These programs, designed to move poor individuals into the husband-wife, normatively heterosexual dyad, are part of a long-term plan for privatizing economic responsibility for children in impoverished households.

This Article situates recent welfare debates concerning the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ("TANF") program, in particular those debates concerning the proposal of the "marriage cure," within a post-colonial context and examines, both historically and currently, how the law of marriage has been used in the United States as a tool for "civilizing" outsiders. Part I analyzes how marriage laws were used in the post-bellum period as a means of minimizing states' economic responsibility to provide for newly-emancipated Blacks, especially former slave children. Part II scrutinizes the racialization of welfare recipients in the United States in recent history and dissects current and proposed TANF marriage-promotion provisions to reveal how marriage and law are again being operated as tools for domesticating welfare queens. Finally, this Article concludes by exploring alternatives to this proposed marriage cure to poverty.

Suggested Citation

Onwuachi-Willig, Angela, The Return of the Ring. California Law Review, Vol. 93, 2005, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 45, Available at SSRN:

Angela Onwuachi-Willig (Contact Author)

Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
6415102368 (Phone)


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