Around the fifteenth century, something interesting happened: the philosophy of individualism was born. Until then the concept of individual rights wasn’t actually really a thing (and for much of the world wasn’t for quite a while longer), but over the next couple hundred years the idea became more popular for a lot of reasons – disillusionment with the government (particularly Britain’s monarchy, who were starting to become known for their excesses and bloodthirstiness) and church, especially. As the concept developed, a bigger variety of things began to be considered as rights that were held by individuals. Some meant physical protection from the government. Others meant political or economic participation. If you’ve played Civilisation, you know the name Adam Smith – he was one of the people thinking about this sort of thing and coming up with the ideas that became liberalism. Liberalism (the precursor to modern neo-liberalism and market liberalism) and individualism evolved together and pretty much go hand in hand. Each man, people were deciding (and it really was each man, as women were required to tend the home – the system doesn’t work otherwise), had the right to provide for himself, rather than relying on a lord who was responsible for the wellbeing of his people. (The quality of that wellbeing varied – some were terrible while others felt a real duty towards the families on their land and would provide for them relatively well even if they were sick or injured and couldn’t work.)
Fast forward, a lot, and skip to the other side of the world. In the mid twentieth century, the Labour government established the welfare state. Anyone who says we have a welfare state now? It’s nothing like what we used to have. The welfare state meant “universal” benefits, generous ones, like payments to families. State houses that were nice to live in. Full (male) employment – in 1950 there were about five people on the unemployment benefit. Targeted health services, particularly focusing on children’s health, with recognition that healthy babies make healthy kids make healthy adults who can join the workforce and contribute tax.
The dark side of this was especially evident when you look at Māori. When the welfare state was being set up they were still mostly living in rural areas, with their iwi or hāpu. Until 1945 essentially no Māori were drawing benefits; only after the war, when Māori began to move into urban areas and the government penetrated rural areas a little more, did they start engaging with welfare agencies. During this period, a big part of the welfare system was discretionary payments, because just saying that a family is a single unit doesn’t mean that families will always be good to each other, but the government didn’t want to be giving money to women who had unreliable husbands because it would encourage them to abandon them to an even greater degree. Discretionary welfare involved a relationship between the social workers and families over a fairly lengthy period of time and these relationships simply didn’t exist for Māori families because of the way they lived – on their traditional lands, in bigger family groups – and, frankly, because of racism. There was a lot of tension as Māori moved into the towns that was simply white New Zealanders complaining about Māori being Māori while, like, existing. When Māori did engage with the welfare system they were scrutinised to a much higher level, which is the problem with discretionary welfare. It’s discretionary. Subjective. Uptake of the non-discretionary family benefits (ten shillings per child at first, increased to fifteen in the late fifties) meant a lot to Māori and that was quite visible, with children getting clothing and more food (things that Māori used to be able to do themselves), which pissed white people off. They thought Māori were getting too much and spending it wrong, while in actual fact there were a lot of things that the family benefit just didn’t cover that discretionary welfare would be useful for – like transporting bodies home for tangi (food for the tangi was also explicitly not covered, even though it’s a pretty important aspect) and traveling to see what to Pākehā would be considered extended family.
The upshot of all of this is that Māori had to prove their need more than Pākehā, and behave “better” to get help. Which really meant behave more white. Even once they moved into the towns and had access to the welfare offices they had to be very careful how they behaved. If they had extended family visiting too much, that would piss off the neighbours. If they were too noisy, that would piss off the neighbours. If they ate food that smelled strongly, that would piss off the neighbours. And while obviously this mostly applied to Māori, discretionary welfare was a problem for other people too. Essentially it was a form of social control, one which encouraged the white ideal of nuclear families, placed in separate housing, breaking down the support systems that were considered a basic necessity for most of human history for raising children. While this was going on, too, there was active societal encouragement for people to start families of not just one or two children, but quite a few – for the Māori of course this is long-standing culture. Children are highly valued. And for white New Zealand, it was racial supremacy and government policy to support that.
The welfare state started to seriously fray in the seventies and completely fell apart in the eighties. Ironically it was Labour who both started and ended it, in their first and fourth occasions in power respectively. I know I have some friends who are a bit younger than me who may think this was quite a while ago, but particularly in terms of societal attitudes it’s really, really not. I was born in the eighties. I have siblings born in the seventies. My parents are at the tail end of the baby boomers. Social beliefs around, say, the un/desirability of children do not often change that quickly without severe external cause, which we have very much not had, here or anywhere in the Western world, in that timeframe. But liberalism has come back in a big way, and politicians and commentators have been talking up their philosophies in the media, something that has demonstrable affect on less deeply ingrained attitudes – I know I use this example a lot, but the rise in threats and violence against people with disabilities in the UK as politicians demonised disability beneficiaries is a really, really good one – and individual responsibility has really supplanted social responsibility as a major driver of public policy. (I know I used responsibility twice there; originally it said individual rights, but then I decided that was wrong.)
Basically what I’m saying is, the idea of individuals, as a whole (ie not counting the declarations that ethnic groups and the extremely poor have “too many” children), having to be solely responsible for the raising of their children and of children being a right tied to income and wealth, is pretty damn new, and not something that society has actually adjusted to. It’s actually pretty radical. It goes against thousands and thousands of years of basically every human culture. It also doesn’t really make sense, because the way nation-states are set up in the Western world relies on growth. We need a growing population, and we don’t have enough very rich to provide it, and it’s politically untenable to get it through immigration because of racism and xenophobia (just look at the news right now for evidence of this – you’d think there’s a flood of Chinese immigrants buying all the houses, and some of our politicians have been trying to convince us that “boat people” are on their way here right now). The middle class and, yes, even the lower class, need to have kids. Even if they need help with some parts of getting them to adulthood in a relatively healthy manner. Furthermore, the family sizes we currently consider normal are pretty small. Three children is not too many. Three children is replacement level and a spare. Less necessary now because of child mortality, happily, and more because more people are choosing not to have children at all (though this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon either; my history has a family with something like six children, none of whom had any of their own, and that was a good couple generations back). And it is entirely reasonable for people to expect social assistance in raising those children, because this is the first generation where anyone has been saying that that’s not reasonable. The universal family benefit wasn’t removed until the eighties! My own parents received that for their first children, and it could be capitalised to pay upfront for bigger expenses (in our case school uniforms, but it could even be taken advantage of by first-home buyers). That social assistance wouldn’t necessarily mean strictly financial transfers, however – tax credits, subsidised services, strong protections for employees that allow parents to keep jobs that pay well and also spend time at home, and, yes, parental leave, are all things that can be done to make it a little bit easier to have a family and which are not a level of expectation that is, really, unprecedented.
The really funny thing about me saying all this, actually, is that I did not used to think like this. Allowances for parents annoyed the hell out of me. I was a member (I’m ashamed to admit) of childfree on LiveJournal, though not cf_hardcore. I mean, it still annoys me that banks seem to think they can only market mortgages towards families and that people talk like only parents need or want a work/life balance, but having learned more about history and social policy makes me realise that, um, we do need allowances for parents. Because parenthood is not something that pays for itself despite the fact that it’s really, really important. It’s one of those things that just makes sense to receive public assistance, like how roads should be publicly funded because that’s much more efficient (Roads of National Significance aside) than expecting private citizens to be responsible for building and maintaining their own. That’s right, folks. Kids are like roads. We shouldn’t have to build and maintain them ourselves.