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Welfare reform in the radical sixties

By Harry Throssell - posted Friday, 5 October 2012

"Nobody came today".

The speaker was a small aged lady in a large 1960s city. A lonely aged lady. The image remains. There are many like her in modern cities.

In the Brisbane of the 1960s - Dylan, Beatles, political demos in City Square, on St Lucia campus - social welfare reform was also on the agenda. Not fun, but radically important for many families.


Mrs G had six children aged 10 years to two months. Her husband had fled. Mrs G was without income and $18 a week rent to find. A St Vincent de Paul counsellor described her in 'mental turmoil', the police gave her $10, Mr G could not be found. The family qualified for Queensland State Family Assistance but it was insufficient to pay the rent, let alone buy food.

The inevitable happened: the family was evicted, children taken into State care, three fostered, three placed in an institution. Mrs G could then seek employment but was living alone. A family split apart by government.

The Gs were among a thousand Queensland Mums and 2500 kids struggling to survive in the 1960s without Dads,some of them in jail, others with new partners.Officially designated 'Deserted Wives', lone mothers could receive a Commonwealth Government widow's pension for themselves and their children once they had been without a breadwinner for six months, but during that initial period financial support varied from State to State. Herewith the rub: in Queensland Family Assistance was not enough to pay the rent, let alone other expenses so families became homeless, children placed in institutions and foster homes. Many Dads disappeared.

One social worker suggested the Department of Children's Services pay a Housing Commission rent and cover basic needs to keep the family together. But DCS said No, if Mum could not care for the family herself then the kids would have to enter government care, if necessary split up. This infuriated newly graduating social workers.

When Mrs Lam's six children were taken into care two were looked after by a foster mother who was paid $16 per week for their up-keep. If they had stayed at home the mother would have been allowed only $5 a week.

Also, 'Deserted Mothers' had to prove they were 'deserving' and 'of good repute' before they could receive help.


Social workers kick in

Although Social workers had been professionally trained since the 1930s in New South Wales and Victoria, it was not until 1958 that the University of Queensland created a Diploma in Social Studies and 1961 when students first graduated in a four year degree course, the first in Australia.

The new breed were puzzled that families were broken apart even when supported by the State. They reported the anomaly to the Queensland Branch of the Australian Association of Social Workers who referred it to the Queensland Council ofSocial Services.

On 22 October 1966 QCOSS held a well-attended seminar on The Problems of Deserted Wives, withChairman Robert Hay pointing out that family break-up 'affects the mental, social and economic health of the nation'.

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This the second in a series of reminiscences by Harry Throssell about his time in child welfare and how it was viewed not so long ago.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Harry Throssell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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