How in Britain ‘family benefits’ became payable to mothers: service to nation, problem of wages and dependency – by Chris Grover

This blog was written by Chris Grover (School of Law/Centre for Child and Family Justice), and is the first of two posts about Family Benefits. The second post can be found here: From an ‘endowment for motherhood’ to a male breadwinner wage: ‘family benefits’ as a wage supplement.

At the heart of social justice is a concern with equality. Equality is a difficult concept because it involves judgements about its meaning (for instance treating all the same or differently to address the effects of historical injustices), exactly what should be more equally distributed (for example, opportunities or outcomes) and how equality might be delivered (through, for instance, state interventions or free markets). In these and other ways notions of social justice are framed by ideological concerns with equality and its attendant concepts, most notably freedom. In the case of ‘family benefits’ it might seem clear who are the focus of the policy concern and what the purpose their purpose is vis-à-vis social justice. The Child Poverty Action Group, for example, points to the positive contribution that Child Benefit makes to tackling poverty through the redistribution of resources to households facing the additional costs of raising children as recognition of both the intrinsic value of children and the future contributions that they will make to society.

In social security policy though, concerns with social justice rarely feature in a simplified form as debates about financial support are framed by various concerns, of which redistribution might (or, more likely, not) be one. This is very apparent in the development of what in post-WWII became known as ‘family benefits’. In this instance, this blog and a second part to follow, focus upon the ways in which ‘family benefits’ have been shaped by a range of concerns beyond those related to social justice. There is a particular focus upon gender issues as arguably the development of ‘family benefits’ from the introduction of Family Allowance in the 1940s has been framed as much by concerns with the redistribution of resources to women in (married) couple households as it has been about supporting children. And the issue of the gendered redistribution of resources was itself framed a range of concerns with the potential economic effects of paying adults weekly allowances ostensibly for their children.


Family Allowance: an ‘endowment for motherhood’

In Britain the predecessor (Family Allowance) of the current Child Benefit was introduced in 1946. It is argued that this was because of its importance to the 1942 Beveridge Report that is often taken as being the blueprint for the post-WWII welfare state there. While Beveridge had been a long-term convert to the efficacy of allowances for children, it was the work of early feminist, Eleanor Rathbone who Beveridge acknowledged as the ‘true mother’ of the Family Allowances Bill 1945.

Rathbone’s arguments for the introduction of Family Allowance were located in her gendered analysis of the economic position of women in married couple households. Her arguments had been influenced by the experiences of World War I, which had demonstrated to her the importance of the ‘reproduction’ of society, and her experiences of working with the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Family Association, which suggested to her that the economic dependency of women in married couple households created bitterness among women and destroyed their sense of self-worth. For Rathbone, Family Allowance was, therefore, framed by a critique of an economic (wage) system to which the dependency of women was central. If gender inequality was to be tackled for women both in and out of paid work family allowances would be required. Rathbone’s ideas were underpinned by a critique of approaches – such as those of Seebohm Rowntree – in the early 20th century to the ‘family wage’, which suggested that men should be able to earn enough to support a wife and at least three children. Such notions of wages, Rathbone argued, assumed females to be dependent in couple households and reduced women in those households to a parasitic state of dependency upon their husbands.

Despite not providing women with their own income to address their own subsistence needs, family allowances would help to address this issue by giving women control over at least some household resources, thereby reducing dependency upon their husbands. In addition, Rathbone argued that family allowances would lead to greater equality in wages paid to men and women because if the support for children came from the state demands for a ‘family wage’ to be paid to men to support their dependents would be diminished. Hence, there would no longer be a case for men to be paid more than women. Therefore, while Family Allowance would be important in terms of redistributing financial resources to families with dependent children as an ‘endowment for motherhood’, it would also be important in realising greater equality at work between men and women.


Fighting for the payment of Family Allowance to women

Despite the observations of Rathbone, when the Family Allowances Bill 1945 was presented to parliament the proposal was that while Family Allowance would be paid to either men or women in couple households, legally it would be the property of men. The justification for this was essentially informed by a traditional liberal view of the sanctity of the privacy of family life – that families were better left to arrange their own affairs. In this context, the government’s argument was that there was little problem with paying Family Allowance to men because as breadwinners they were already entrusted with handing over at least a proportion of their wages to their wives and that the payment of Family Allowance to women might actually reduce the amount husbands gave their wives.

Eleanor Rathbone, who by now was an independent MP (Combined English Universities) opposed the government’s position, arguing in parliament the concerns that she had raised some two decades earlier – that because Family Allowance was to belong to men their wives would once again be reduced to an appendage, to hangers-on to their husbands. This, Rathbone argued, was particularly problematic in 1945 as such an approach might act to incentivise women to take paid employment to earn their own income at a time when it would be more beneficial to society for them to be having and caring for children. On a free vote it was decided that Family Allowance should be paid to mothers.


Establishing a principle and the multiple roles of ‘family benefits’

Rathbone’s approach was framed by her view of the role of women in service to the needs of the nation. In today’s eyes Rathbone’s arguments may seem problematic because of their potential role in reproducing the idea that it should be women’s responsibility to care for children. Nevertheless, Family Allowance did give women control over at least some household resources. The introduction of Family Allowance though, was important not just because of its social justice potential, but also because, first, it established an administrative principle which would later frame debates about extending what were to become understood as ‘family benefits’ in the post-WWII period – that they should be paid to mothers. Second, the introduction of Family Allowance demonstrates the many and often contradictory ideas which help to frame social policies. So, for instance, in addition to the ‘endowment for motherhood’ arguments, family allowances were also argued by various policy makers to have demographic effects (encouraging married couples to have more children) and economic consequences (a means of incentivising people to take paid work and reducing inflationary pressure upon wages).

The economic potential of ’family benefits’ was to become increasingly important in the post-WWII paid as the principle of paying ‘family benefits’ to mothers was increasingly questioned through the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ and later policies aimed at supplementing low wages. These are the foci of the second part of this blog which examines policy debates from the 1960s that, at least in part, were structured by a concern with which parent received ‘family benefits’ in the context of their means-tested extension to people in low paid wage work.


Dr Chris Grover is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Lancaster University, and Co-Director of the Centre for Child and Family Justice Studies. His main current research interests are concerned with analysing contemporary and historical changes in income maintenance and labour market policy. His latest book Social Security and Wage Poverty – Historical and Policy Aspects of Supplementing Wages in Britain was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan