The domestic purposes benefit
In the 1960s the divorce rate and rate of births outside of marriage both rose, and the number of households without a male breadwinner also increased. Women’s groups and the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security argued that low-income mothers had a statutory right to income support if they cared for children at home without a male breadwinner. Access to a discretionary emergency benefit for separated, divorced and single mothers was available, but they had to demonstrate their need for financial support to the Social Security Department.
A domestic purposes benefit (DPB) became available to all sole parents in 1973. Those on the DPB were overwhelmingly women, and the numbers rose during the 1970s.
Bert Walker and the DPB
Controversy about the DPB intensified in 1976 when Minister of Social Welfare Bert Walker announced that some solo mothers were ‘ripping off the system’. 1 He argued that women were not eligible for the benefit if they were in a sexual relationship with a man. His comments generated large-scale protests from women’s groups.
Controversy about the DPB
The Social Security Amendment Bill which set up the DPB was passed with little debate, but this form of family welfare was controversial. Some people said it would contribute to fathers avoiding financial responsibility for their children. Others were critical of the DPB because it enabled women to rear children by themselves, while others argued that it was not high enough to avoid child poverty. However, the DPB raised the material wellbeing of mother-only households, enabled sole parents to focus on their parenting responsibilities and recognised that parenting was socially useful work.
Equal pay for women?
The Equal Pay Act 1972 gave women the right to equal pay with men when they were doing the same jobs. However, many women worked in female-dominated occupations with lower rates of pay. Some women benefited more from the Matrimonial Property Act 1976, which divided family assets more equitably when couples separated.
Feminist groups, as well as supporting the DPB, urged the Accident Compensation Corporation to recognise the costs of unpaid caring work in its payment schemes and ensured that the universal retirement system (national superannuation) was gender-neutral. While these initiatives improved women’s position as earners and when marriages ended, women’s overall economic position reflected their lower involvement in paid work, especially if they had young children.
Family benefit declines, tax benefits increase
By the mid-1970s economic and political changes overshadowed welfare reform. Higher oil prices, lower returns on agricultural exports, and the entry of the UK – one of New Zealand’s largest export markets – into the European Economic Community affected the economy. Declining terms of trade, fewer import controls, rampant inflation, lower productivity and capital-intensive public investments occurred alongside rapid increases in public debt and unemployment. In the late 1970s the family benefit had declined as a percentage of average weekly earnings. Tax benefits for the main earner in low-income families provided some relief.