This article explores the relationship between gender, welfare and the state through a case study of the passing of the Victorian Neglected and Criminal Children’s Act in 1964. It argues that poor white women, who made their financial and child care problems known to magistrates, influenced the development of state welfare policy in the mid-century period. The article also pursues the more general question of how gendered understandings about the problems of the poor and poverty influenced the planning and imagining of state welfare policy. Contemporaries identified deserted wives and children as the principal group of the poor. A consideration of how concern about male abandonment intersected with another, broader discourse about the potential criminality of poor children, reveals how officers of the state interpreted and redefined, in ways that accorded with their positions as the keepers of social and moral order, the problems that destitute mothers presented to them.