The passage of the Social Security Amendment Act introduced the Domestic Purposes Benefit to New Zealand’s social welfare system. Paid out from 1 May 1974, the DPB was set at a level that enabled sole mothers to care for their children without relying on paid employment.
The introduction of the Old-age Pension in 1898 and the landmark Social Security Act of 1938 saw New Zealand earn an international reputation for progressive social policy. The concept of state care ‘from the cradle to the grave’ became an established part of New Zealand life.
Prior to 1973 the government supported families by supplementing the wages of widows and sole mothers who worked. The 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security recommended that a new benefit be set at a level high enough to allow sole mothers to stay home to care for their children.
The Domestic Purposes Benefit was intended to help women with a dependent child or children who had lost the support of a husband, or were inadequately supported by him. It was also available to unmarried mothers and their children, and to fathers who were the sole parent of one or more children. Women who were living alone and cared for incapacitated relatives could also claim the DPB.
The traditional image of the nuclear family had begun to change. The idea of the father going out to work while mum stayed home was not relevant to an increasing number of New Zealanders. Attitudes to marriage in general were changing and the number of sole parents was rising. These changes had forced a rethink of how sole parents were supported when relationships ended. (The Act treated de facto relationships as marriages.)
Critics complained that this benefit would lead to an explosion in the number of sole parents. It was argued that it would be too easy for men to walk away from their responsibilities and place an unfair burden on the taxpayer. The DPB was also seen as encouraging sole parents to opt out of the workforce.
While men could claim the DPB, the vast majority of those claiming the benefit were women. A new class of New Zealander was created: the ‘solo mum’. During tougher economic times they came to symbolise what critics complained was wrong with the welfare state. Those receiving the DPB were somehow ‘ripping off the system’.
Others argued that the DPB was an important right for women. It gave them and their children some protection from failed relationships that were potentially harmful. The DPB’s advocates also argued that as the amount paid was barely enough to provide basic necessities, it was hardly an incentive for anyone to give up paid work voluntarily.
Image: Women protesting in 1977