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 ‘family wage’ and social security
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.
Family allowances and support for deserted wives
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.
Mum, Dad and the kids
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.
State housing as family support
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.