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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Until the 20th century families in financial difficulties depended for assistance on relatives, friends and neighbours, charitable aid, benevolent societies, community groups and churches. The state had little involvement in the provision of welfare.
At first only ‘deserving’ women had access to the widow’s pension. Those without children, and women whose children were illegitimate or adopted were not eligible for a state pension. Neither were alien or Asian widows, or unmarried, deserted or divorced mothers. These people had to work, or depend on their families or charity.
Women’s organisations such as the National Council of Women, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Mothers’ Union urged governments to support families, women and children. Public debate led to a means-tested old-age pension in 1898, followed by a targeted widows’ pension in 1911 for poor mothers of ‘good character’. Pensions for war veterans and their widows, and remittance payments for women separated from their soldier husbands, were introduced during the First World War.
While Māori had access to these pensions, they often received lower payments based on assessments of their property ownership and material needs. ‘Asiatics’, which included Chinese, Indian, Syrian, Singhalese and Lebanese, were excluded from the old-age pension whether or not they were naturalised New Zealanders. This continued until the Pensions Amendment Act 1936, which removed restrictions on ‘Asiatic’ residents. While New Zealand was seen by some as an innovative ‘social laboratory’, particular ethnic and cultural groups were defined for many years as less deserving of state support.
In the late 19th century local governments were lobbied to control children who were not attending school and were defined as ‘out of control’. The Neglected and Criminal Children Act 1867 allowed provincial councils to administer the care and custody of children who were neglected or orphaned. Industrial and reformatory schools were developed for these children, and focused on encouraging work habits and Christian morals. These child protection laws, residential schools and welfare agencies challenged assumptions that parents and families had sole authority over children.
Homeless and neglected children were initially cared for in industrial schools along with delinquent children and adolescents. Between 1899 and 1902 the Education Department began separating children with criminal convictions or defined as ‘uncontrollable’ from others. They were sent to reformatories. Industrial schools were also subjected to closer inspection and control.
Children born outside marriage were considered ‘illegitimate’ because they had no legal father and were not entitled to paternal support or inheritance. Unmarried mothers were often stigmatised and had no statutory right to state income support if they raised their children alone. Some illegitimate children were placed in children’s homes or were adopted by unrelated families.
In 1908 legislation was passed that enabled these children to gain legal rights if their parents later married. It was not until 1969 that the Status of Children Act removed the legal stigma of illegitimacy.
Health reformer Frederic Truby King established the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children (later known as the Plunket Society) in Dunedin in 1907. It provided state-subsidised health and social services for new mothers and their children through branches throughout the country. The rallying cry of this organisation was ‘Help the mothers and save the babies’. It was an example of what has been termed ‘maternalist welfare’ – the control by voluntary women’s organisations of welfare services for women and children.
Early New Zealand governments wanted to improve child and maternal health as a way of promoting reproduction, stable communities and national population growth. In 1924 the League of Nations endorsed the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and urged governments to improve child welfare, maternal working conditions and income support programmes. The New Zealand Child Welfare Act 1925 established the Child Welfare Branch of the Education Department, which became responsible for orphaned, destitute, neglected and ‘out of control’ children.
By the 1920s social reformers argued that orphanages and children’s homes did not offer the love and stimulation children needed. They promoted foster care and adoption by unrelated families with two parents and a stable income. Many children were fostered or adopted, or were sent to church-run residential schools far away from birth parents and extended family.
The government contributed to the financial welfare of families through policies that protected the New Zealand labour market, including restrictions on imports and immigrant labour, price controls and centralised wage setting. Trade unions argued for a ‘family wage’ which provided married men with sufficient earnings to support a wife and two children, and this wage was enshrined in 1935 labour legislation of the first Labour government.
The Labour government’s Social Security Act 1938 also set up means-tested benefits for people who were unemployed or sick, offering valuable income support for families. New Zealand also provided free primary and secondary education, a community-based health care scheme, and a public hospital system. While the 1938 act did not explicitly discriminate against Māori, the provision for the payment of benefits at a lower rate ‘if the maximum benefit is not necessary for the maintenance of the beneficiary’1 allowed officials to pay Māori less than Pākehā. While communal living was often cited as a reason for reduction of Māori benefits, MP Eruera Tirikātene told the minister of social security in 1940 that Europeans living at the Rātana pā got the full benefit, while Māori residents had a reduced benefit.
After the First World War the government strengthened direct financial support for families and women rearing children alone. A family allowance for low-income married mothers with three or more children was introduced in 1926. The allowance was meant to supplement the earnings for the father, not meet the costs of raising children. Gradually the state assumed more financial responsibility for ‘deserving’ families, especially when male breadwinners were absent. A means-tested pension for deserted wives was introduced by the first Labour government in 1936. However, a woman had to take proceedings out against her husband to qualify for the pension and, if he was traceable, he was bound to pay maintenance.
By the 1940s most English-speaking liberal countries had developed universal child allowances. In 1946 the New Zealand means-tested child allowance was converted into a ‘family benefit’ for all families with children. This universal benefit was around 16% of the total after-tax income of the mid-range family with two children.
The first Labour government built state houses for married couples with one or more children. The first family to live in these new state houses was David and Mary McGregor and their children, who moved into their home in Miramar, Wellington, in 1937.
The Workers’ Dwellings Act 1905 provided for public housing in urban areas, and Richard Seddon’s Liberal government became the first central government in the Western world to build state houses. However, the rent on these houses was too costly for many low-income families.
In 1937 state housing for families with children was significantly expanded by the Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage. Access to good-quality low-cost housing, with a garden and a vegetable patch, was a major contribution to family welfare. Many families later purchased these houses on favourable terms in the 1950s when a National government sold them to state tenants.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Labour government elected in 1984 restructured many aspects of the state but family welfare did not undergo major changes. However, payments to families were increased through a means-tested per-child weekly tax credit called ‘family support’. It was paid in addition to the $6 a week universal family-benefit payment, which had significantly declined in value relative to average weekly earnings. New parental leave and employment equity legislation was introduced, but the Employment Equity Act 1990 was repealed when a National government was elected later that year.
Women increased as a percentage of the paid labour force. While some women were employed in well-paid professional and managerial jobs, others tended to move in and out of paid work and rely heavily on part-time work. Women were concentrated in lower-paid and lower-status occupations. After the birth of their children, many women withdrew from the labour force for some years. Employed Pākehā women were better off than Māori and Pacific Island women. Domestic responsibilities on top of paid work reduced the rewards associated with paid work for many working mothers.
More commercial childcare centres opened in the 1990s as more mothers entered the workforce. Private centres and community-based centres were regulated by the government and received fee subsidies for low-income children.
In 1991 the National government cut the level of most benefits, including the DPB. Several amendments were also made to DPB eligibility rules, including:
The Coalition Against Benefit Cuts presented government agencies in Christchurch with ox hearts on the first anniversary of the 1991 benefit cuts to protest against the government’s ‘heartless’ policies. A manager at the Methodist Central mission said that about 10,000 people would rely on Christchurch food banks that Christmas, three-quarters of them children.
In 1991 universal family benefit payments were incorporated into means-tested family support tax credits. In 1996 a $15 child tax credit was introduced, but was only available to parents in paid work. Although other liberal states such as Canada also changed their family support programmes at this time, the changes in New Zealand were particularly swift and severe. They were less generous and more targeted to low-income families in paid work (rather than beneficiaries) than either the UK or Australia.
In 1998 the National-led government initiated a public discussion document called ‘Towards a code of social and family responsibility’.1 The proposed code included best practices for childcare, health, money management and employment, and focused on responsibilities within households. The document did not discuss unpaid caring work within the family or alternative ways of providing this care.
The proposed code generated enthusiasm from some employers’ groups, was denounced by the New Zealand Council of Social Services, and received little support in opinion polls. While a formal code was never introduced, the focus on family rather than state responsibility may have reduced expectations about state support. At the same time the National government encouraged the public to report neighbours and associates they suspected might be defrauding the welfare system.
In 1998 the government announced a change in welfare direction. The unemployment benefit was renamed the ‘community wage’ and beneficiaries were required to be available for community work. The sickness benefit was reduced to the same level as the unemployment benefit. Domestic purposes and widows’ beneficiaries whose youngest child reached 14 years were expected to actively seek full-time work. When the youngest child was six to 13 years, the beneficiary was required to look for part-time work. Beneficiaries with children under six years were interviewed annually by welfare officials about future employment prospects.
To encourage parental employment, more childcare services were promised and the child-care subsidy was expanded for low-income families with school-aged children. The government also promised to extend employment leave for parents with sick children. These work-related reforms were treated as ‘urgent’ and pushed through Parliament with little public discussion. They were applauded by business groups but were opposed by the political left and some members of the ruling National Party. Opponents argued that mothers with sole responsibility for children should not be compelled to find paid work.
After the 1999 election the new Labour-led coalition government made few changes to family welfare. However, in 2002 it removed the requirement for parents with young children on the domestic purposes benefit to seek paid work or forfeit the benefit. In the same year 12 weeks paid parental leave was introduced for employed parents with new babies. This was originally initiated by the Alliance Party (one of Labour’s coalition partners).
Charles Waldegrave of the New Zealand Poverty Measurement Project welcomed Working for Families tax credits because they recognised the high costs of rearing children. However, Susan St John from the Child Poverty Action Group focused on the impact on the children of beneficiaries who do not receive these payments. She argued: ‘Leaving the worst off further outside the normal living standards of society is a recipe for disaster.’1
In 2004 a Labour-led government announced the ‘Working for Families’ programme, which raised parental income support, the accommodation allowance and childcare subsidies from 2006. This programme focused on employed parents rather than beneficiaries, providing additional support through tax credits to moderate and low-income families. The maximum amounts of family tax credit and the extra in-work payment increased gradually for families with dependent children if their incomes were lower than $35,000, giving more support to the first child than subsequent children.
Working for Families also included a higher accommodation allowance and slightly higher childcare subsidies. The childcare subsidy for preschool children in low-income households was extended to a maximum of 50 hours per week if parents were working, studying or in training and the amount gradually increased depending on parental incomes. However, this subsidy did not cover all the actual costs of childcare. From 2006 the Out of School Care and Recreation subsidy (OSCAR) was paid for up to 20 hours a week at the same hourly rate. Working for Families was continued under a National-led government between 2008 and 2017.
A newly elected Labour/New Zealand First coalition government with a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Green Party announced a Families Package in December 2017 that came into effect on 1 July 2018. This package of family support policies built on Working for Families and included a new Best Start tax credit of $60 per week for the year following the birth of every child born on, or after, 1 July 2018. Best Start payments after the child was one year old were related to household income. The Best Start tax credit was also paid to caregivers receiving the Orphan’s or Unsupported Child Benefits and the Foster Care Allowance.
The Families Package increased Working for Families tax credits and Accommodation Supplement payments for some parents and enlarged the number of parents receiving these forms of support. The level of accommodation support depended on housing costs, family income and circumstances, and cash assets. Winter Energy Payments to assist with the cost of heating homes also came into effect on 1 July 2018. Those eligible included people on main benefits such as New Zealand Superannuation, Veteran’s Pensions, Jobseeker Support, Sole Parent Support, Supported Living Payment, Young Parent Payment and Emergency Benefit.
The Families Package replaced tax cuts promised by the outgoing National-led government.
Child poverty rates are often defined as the percentage of children living in households with incomes less than 50% of the national median after taxes and transfers, adjusted for family size. United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) figures show that New Zealand’s child poverty rates, especially for sole-parent households, are relatively high, although they are lower than in the United States. While UNICEF argues that responses to child poverty should include universal child programmes as well as poverty reduction, New Zealand targets programmes to children assumed to be ‘at risk’.
Commentators have highlighted the consequences of poverty for children. Children from low-income families have more than twice the incidence of chronic illness and disabilities as those living in families on higher incomes, and are more likely to experience social impairments, and emotional and conduct disorders.
The 2018 Budget included funding for two new expert units directed at reducing child poverty – the Child Poverty Unit and the Child Wellbeing Unit. Legislation introduced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, required present and future governments to set targets to reduce child poverty.
The Families Package is directed at addressing child poverty by increasing support for parents through family tax credits and accommodation supplement payments depending on their household income, family circumstances and housing costs. Winter Energy Payments subsidise the heating costs of households on the main benefits, including sole parents and young parents. Best Start tax credits support all parents in the first year of a child’s life and parents on lower incomes with children aged one to three years.
In July 2007 the Labour government began funding early childhood education without parental fees for all children aged three to five years for up to six hours a day and up to 20 hours a week. Although the fees charged by many centres exceeded the maximum subsidy, the reforms substantially improved state support for early childhood education. Parents of children aged three to five years could receive a mix of both the childcare subsidy and the subsidy for 20 hours of early childhood education if their low income childcare subsidy was for over 20 hours per week.
In 2015 public and private spending on early childhood education for children over three years old placed New Zealand in the top third of countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a percentage of gross domestic product. Ninety-four per cent of four-year-olds and 89% of three-year-olds were enrolled in early childhood education in 2015. This is related to policy directed at subsidising the costs of early childhood education for those over three. Eighty-seven per cent of early childhood expenditure is public spending. State expenditure takes the form of subsidies to private providers. In New Zealand most five=year-olds attend primary school. In most comparable OECD countries early childhood education continues for five-year-olds.
Public spending on a range of family benefits, services and tax reductions was also above the OECD average in 2017. This was partly because data on cash transfers for New Zealand included spending on income support payments for sole-parent families. In many other OECD countries support for these families was part of more general social assistance programmes for families.
Hundreds of people marched to Parliament grounds on 28 March 2007, singing the national anthem and shouting their opposition to what they dubbed the ‘Anti-smacking’ Bill. One of the demonstrators, Louise Simpson, said that the legislation was ‘social engineering’. On the same day, celebrity supporters inked their handprints to a big banner headed ‘Hands Up for Change’ which was handed to MPs supporting the bill.
Some view state regulation directed at the welfare of children as interference in families. Against the background of moves in some European countries to ban the physical punishment of children, Green Party MP Sue Bradford introduced the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill into Parliament. This removed parents’ legal right to use ‘reasonable force’ to discipline their children, a change that was strongly supported by the Families Commission (later Superu). This change to the Crimes Act became law in 2007.
Groups opposing this legislation initiated a referendum in 2009 on the question: ‘Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?’ Eighty-seven per cent of those who cast their votes in this referendum voted ‘no’, but only 54% of eligible voters participated. Some commentators argued that the question was ambiguous and misleading, as it implied that any parent who smacked their child would be criminalised.
Prime Minister John Key stated after the referendum that the 2007 legislation was working well. However, the law would be changed if a review of procedures showed that parents were being criminalised for lightly smacking their children. Police reviews found that there had been just eight prosecutions for smacking between 2007 and 2013, and the law was not changed.
Māori and Pasifika whānau are overrepresented among those with the lowest incomes and the most dependent on welfare benefits. Analyses of child poverty have highlighted the plight of children in these families, especially if their parents were not in paid work and ineligible for Working for Families tax relief.
In 2010 Whānau Ora was developed – a new approach to supporting families in need initiated by the Māori Party and adopted by the National-led government. The focus was on whānau and the relationships around them, rather than on welfare benefits for individuals. It recognised that state agencies such as Work and Income were not always the most appropriate organisations to work with families, and also that communication between these agencies was limited. Interacting with multiple bureaucracies was often stressful for families needing support.
Whānau Ora was developed to provide cross-government support to families in need through non-governmental organisations contracted to work closely with them. The programme was informed by a model of partnership between families and individuals who might support and assist them – identified as Kaiārahi (navigators). Kaiārahi met with individual families to find out directly from them what they saw as their needs and how they could be supported. They then liaised with non-governmental agencies to ensure that they had the support they needed. These non-governmental organisations were contracted by commissioning bodies responsible to a central government agency for delivery of the programme.
Te ao Māori principles and practices shaped the development of this programme and it was specifically directed at supporting Māori and Pasifika families. However, it was available to families of all ethnicities in need of support.
A review by the Auditor-General in 2015 concluded that while the programme was innovative in its collective approach to family well-being, better planning and financial management was needed.
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Boston, Jonathan and Simon Chapple. Child poverty in New Zealand. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2014.
Dalley, Bronwyn. Family matters: child welfare in twentieth-century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1998.
Grey, Claire. 'The affective economy of welfare in Aotearoa New Zealand'. New Zealand Sociology Volume 32, no. 2 (2017): 139-155.
Lunt, Neil, Mike O’Brien and Robert Stephens, eds. New Zealand, new welfare. Melbourne: CENGAGE Learning, 2008.
Nolan, Melanie. Breadwinning: New Zealand women and the state. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2000.
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