Story: Family welfare

Page 1. Family autonomy and state policy

All images & media in this story

A safety net for families

Since the early 20th century the New Zealand state has offered a social safety net for families. It encouraged family autonomy but also provided child protection and income support for poorer households and families in crisis. Financial support from the state has been targeted mainly to the ‘deserving poor’ – people who are poor through no fault of their own, such as people unable to work due to illness. The limits of state welfare have been illustrated by evidence of child poverty in households most dependent on state benefits.

State support for families has shifted with changes in families’ ideas about state, community and family responsibilities, pressures from international organisations, and fluctuations in the local and global economy. However, national interest groups and political parties have had the most influence. Some have emphasised the state’s responsibility for the material well-being of families, while others have argued that families should be more self-reliant.

Unravelling the safety net?

In 2008 a report by the Beneficiary Advocacy Federation of New Zealand and Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand argued that citizens ‘no longer have the public safety net that has characterised our social security benefit system since the introduction of the Social Security Act.’1 They highlighted concerns about access to supplementary support from the state in cases of extreme hardship.

Family benefits and allowances

From 1926 the government began providing financial support for families on low incomes, and the universal family benefit was introduced in 1946. This was an important source of support for families in the post-war period, but its value proportional to wages declined in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s this benefit was again targeted at low-income families. Since then, financial support for families has focused on parents’ involvement in paid work (rather than beneficiaries) and tax credits.

While widows received a pension from 1911, women rearing children alone received only discretionary state support until the statutory domestic purposes benefit (DPB) was introduced in 1973. The DPB provided financial support for sole parents to stay at home to care for their children. However, from the 1990s parents on the DPB were increasingly expected to enter employment or combine part-time employment with state support.

Māori families, benefits and allowances

Despite the fact that Māori families often experienced greater financial hardship, many officials assumed that Māori communal life, different lifestyle expectations and sharing of benefits justified lower benefit payments. The significant contribution by Māori during the Second World War made it difficult to continue this discrimination and it was outlawed in 1945. From the mid-20th century access to family benefits at the same rate as Pākehā had a positive effect on the welfare of children in Māori communities.

A good place to raise children?

By the early 21st century many New Zealanders demanded lower taxes and expected parents to work their way out of poverty. However, many also wanted the state to protect people in vulnerable families from abuse and neglect, offer free health-care services, reduce poverty, and expand educational opportunities for children and youth. These contradictory expectations meant governments had to prioritise some initiatives over others, and restrained major improvements to family welfare.

New Zealand continued to offer a safety net for families with children, but family support was not indexed to wages, and social housing and family services remained underfunded. Nevertheless, many people still viewed New Zealand as a relatively family-friendly country and a good place to raise children.

  1. Tony McGurk, The unravelling of the welfare safety net: a brief history of the changes to New Zealand’s social welfare benefit system from the 1991 benefit cuts to the proposed single core benefit: a report. Wellington: Caritas, 2008, p. 10. Back
How to cite this page:

Maureen Baker and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Family welfare - Family autonomy and state policy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Maureen Baker and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 29 Jun 2018