From an ‘endowment for motherhood’ to a male breadwinner wage: ‘family benefits’ as a wage supplement – by Chris Grover

This blog was written by Chris Grover (School of Law/Centre for Child and Family Justice), and is the second of two posts about Family Benefits. The first post can be found here: How in Britain ‘family benefits’ became payable to mothers: service to nation, problem of wages and dependency.

It was seen in the first part of this blog that with the introduction of Family Allowance in 1946 a principle was created that ‘family benefits’ should be paid to women in (heterosexual) couple households. That principle structured debates about the situation of the poorest working families vis-à-vis social security benefits from the 1960s when poverty was ‘rediscovered’ through Abel-Smith and Townsend’s The Poor and the Poorest and the activities of the newly formed Child Poverty Action Group.

Central to the rediscovery of poverty was the finding that many families living in poverty had a person in them who was in full time paid employment. This was problematic in the 1960s because such families were then prohibited from receiving unemployment-related benefits, even if, for example, their income was lower in work than they might have expected to receive if unemployed. This was because of a long-standing, although misinformed, interpretation of the alleged detrimental effects the payment of poor relief to people in paid work had on their character and their wages. Such ideas had informed the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, the principles of which were transferred in post-WWII social security via the development of National Assistance.


Reacting to the rediscovery of poverty: who should control ‘family benefits’, men or women?

The rediscovery of poverty provided the catalyst in the second half of the 1960s for a search for a policy that would help to reduce poverty among households where the ‘breadwinner’ was in paid work, but the household income was below the rate of benefit that might have received had the household been workless. The Ministry of Social Security estimated that such households numbered 160,000. The policy that found favour after fierce debate in the Wilson Labour government was to increase the value of Family Allowance, which had been neglected in the complacency of economic expansion and full employment in the post-WWII period. The increase in Family Allowance, however, was to be selective as its value was to be clawed back from better off families through increased direct taxes on the wage income of those families (similar to the basis upon which Child Benefit has been paid in Britain since 2013).

The gender implications of this approach were central to debates among government ministers and civil servants about the development of such a policy. Most notably, the principle that family benefits should be paid to mothers was questioned because of the potential effects upon the distribution of resources between men and women that such a development entailed. The main concern was that the policy would involve a redistribution of resources in better off families from men (through increased taxation) to women (via increased Family Allowance). The Inland Revenue and the Treasury argued that many men would object to a policy that left them with less money in their pay packet, even if their wives got extra money for their children at the Post Office. In brief, it was felt that men would merely see the development as involving an increase in taxation, therefore ignoring the increase in benefit paid to their wives.

To overcome such views the Ministry of Social Security employed a range of arguments that drew upon the familiar and not-so-familiar about the importance of paying ‘family benefits’ to mothers and which pointed to difficulties that not paying such benefits to mothers might raise. In the case of the familiar, for instance, the Ministry of Social Security, like Rathbone had in debates about the introduction of Family Allowance in the 1940s, envoked what might be described as a ‘deficient male discourse’. This suggested that for various reasons, including selfishness, and problem drinking and gambling, some (albeit a minority of) men could not be trusted to share resources with their wives. In the case of the not-so-familiar it was argued that any policy which increased resources controlled by men would bring opposition from women’s organisations and state welfare professionals, notably social workers, that would be difficult for the government to resist.

Family Allowance with ‘claw back’ was introduced in 1968 meaning that in higher income households with more than two children women saw increased resources paid directly to them, at the expense of the resources of men. Despite this development, the slow reaction and what many saw as a limited approach to dealing with in-work family poverty partly cost Labour the 1970 General Election. It was replaced by a Conservative government which oversaw the introduction of first ever social security benefit (Family Income Supplement, FIS) in Britain for low paid working households.


Extending ‘family benefits’: discouraging women from doing paid work

Family Income Supplement was means-tested and paid to women in couple households. This should not be surprising because FIS was essentially conceived as a means-tested addition to Family Allowance for families where the ‘breadwinner’ was in low paid work. While, as was seen in the first blog several roles were attributed to Family Allowance, FIS was primarily conceived as a means of encouraging people who might expect to earn a low wage to take a job. The government concern FIS was supposed to address was that for some large families they may have better off receiving unemployment-related benefits, rather than taking low paid work. These work incentive-type arguments, however, were gendered, for it was argued that if FIS was paid to mothers in low income households it would discourage them from taking paid work. This was thought to be good for both reducing unemployment among men and good for children who would see more of their mothers.

The second of these arguments had at least resonance with Rathbone’s approach to paying Family Allowance to mothers, although it was stripped of any appeals to gender equality both inside and outside of labour markets. In contrast, the general thrust of FIS was that it would strengthen the male breadwinner model of paid work, which through FIS’s development was defined as the preserve of men. And the emphasis upon the ‘maleness’ of paid work has been reinforced in ‘family benefits’ policy since the 1970s. In the case of Tax Credits, for example, then Prime Minister Tony Blair presented them as essentially buttressing the breadwinner wage model when he argued that they had enabled half a million mothers in couple households to choose to stay at home. Similarly, research demonstrates the detrimental impact of Universal Credit (the replacement for Tax Credits) upon the work incentives of second earners (most likely to be women) in couple households. Such concerns, however, were dismissed by the Coalition government as being justifiable for a policy aimed at reducing the number of households in which no adult is in paid work.


‘Family benefits’ and the ‘culture of the wage packet’ and the male breadwinner wage

The principle that ‘family benefits’ should be paid to women in couple households was not challenged head-on until the 1980s when a concerted effort was made to pay the means-tested addition to Family Allowance for low paid households to men. This occurred in the 1980s when it was argued that FIS should be extended as a means of addressing increasing in unemployment. In this instance, the focus was upon how to encourage men with dependent children into paid work and how employers might be encouraged to create more employment opportunities by reducing wages they paid to their workers.

It was argued by the government’s ‘think tank’, the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) that this would happen if, among other things, an expanded FIS (what was eventually introduced as Family Credit in 1988) was paid to men through the wage packet. This, it was believed would have an important educational effect – that in the development of a popular capitalism which was central to Thatcher governments it would help to demonstrate the wage packet was the means of supporting ‘the family’. To do this it was argued that Family Credit would have to be paid to men in work, otherwise it would just be interpreted as an additional family benefit, rather than a means of supporting wages and, therefore, acting as an incentive for men to take paid work.

The Green Paper outlining Family Credit argued that this should be the case, but it was fiercely opposed by a number of organisations, and perhaps most importantly, a number of Conservative women, including the Party’s then vice-chair. The idea was eventually dropped. However, since then the principle of paying ‘family benefits’ (at least beyond the universal Child Benefit) to mothers has been eroded. First, an extension of the CPRS’s argument in the 1980s was used by ‘new’ Labour governments to distinguish between ‘family benefits’ for adults (paid through the wage packet to men) and children (paid to mothers). At a point when women in couple households could have had some control of resources to their own subsistence it was denied. Furthermore, concerns have also been expressed that the consequence of the replacement of Tax Credits with Universal Credit which is paid on a monthly basis to a nominated household recipient will involve a shift in ‘family benefit’ resources from women to men as the latter become nominated as the recipients.


Conclusion: family benefits – men, women and wages

Over two blogs we have examined arguments regarding the payment of ‘family benefits’. While undoubtedly those benefits can be understood through appeals to social justice as they involve the redistribution of resources in various directions, their history also demonstrates that such concerns are only one of several considerations framing their development, and often it has not been the main consideration. And, as importantly, their history also demonstrates how redistributive concerns related to gender have since the inception of ‘family benefits’ been renegotiated in ways that are more related to conservative attitudes to ‘the family’ and men and women within it than they are with gender equality, as outlined, for example, by Eleanor Rathbone in her demands for an ‘endowment for motherhood’.

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