State support for families
In the 1950s New Zealand was seen as a good place to bring up children. Birth rates were high (especially in Māori families) and family income support was relatively generous. In 1946 universal family-benefit payments replaced means-tested family allowances, and each mother received some money each week to spend on her children. This meant that all families with children under 16 were now part of the social security system. They were well supported relative to other beneficiaries. Between 1945 and 1960 parents living on a mid-range wage with two children would receive through family benefit payments and income tax relief about 50% of what a single old-age pensioner received.
Unemployment was low, living standards were high and state housing was relatively generous. Home-ownership rates were high compared to European countries, assisted by the 1958 and 1964 Family Benefits (Home Ownership) acts, which allowed family benefits to be capitalised and paid in advance to parents as deposits on homes. Low-income families could also access subsidised mortgages at 3% interest. In the 1950s the International Labor Organization labelled New Zealand a model welfare state.
Keeping mothers at home?
Hilda Ross, National MP for Hamilton, argued in 1956 that ‘a well man in an everyday job, and with the child benefit of 10s per week per child, should be able to keep his wife in her home so that she may look after their children.’ 1 However, mothers’ involvement in paid work increased in the 1950s and 1960s. The National Council of Women and housewives’ unions said this was because family benefits did not keep up with the costs of rearing children.
In the 1950s the New Zealand welfare state was firmly focused on support for married couples with young children. Single, divorced and separated mothers still struggled financially. State social workers could withhold discretionary benefits from these mothers and many were heavily dependent on voluntary welfare organisations.
During the 1960s New Zealand and other liberal welfare states began to regulate and administer child-welfare services previously offered by private agencies, such as screening foster parents and adoptive parents. Child-welfare advocates argued that children should not be stigmatised by their parents’ activities or decisions, and the concept of illegitimacy was removed from legislation in 1969.
Extended-family members, rather than unrelated foster families or orphanages, were now encouraged to raise children whose parents were unable to care for them. These policies kept more Māori children within their cultural community. Family members providing foster care got less state support than non-family members, and therefore saved public resources. Māori whānau (families) were more likely to care for children in their extended family and were therefore particularly affected by differences in payments for family members and non-family members.
From parental authority to child rights
During the 20th century the state’s approach to children changed. It had begun by emphasising paternal authority, and then moved to granting the courts the right to make some decisions on children’s behalf, and to basing decisions on the best interests of the child. Finally the child became viewed as a ‘person’ before the law. By the late 20th century children were entitled to separate legal representation in parental custody disputes, and their views on future living arrangements were taken into consideration if their parents divorced.