The social security act was passed 50 years ago in September 1938. It was the culmination of the Labour government’s efforts to ensure its citizens would never again suffer the poverty experienced during the economic crisis of the 1920s and early 1930s and to guarantee a reasonable standard of living for everyone from the “cradle to the grave”. Party leader Michael Joseph Savage called it “applied Christianity”.
New Zealand’s first Labour party had been elected three years earlier: the mood recalled by Janet Frame in To the Is-land, was “almost like a Second Coming, so great was the joy in our household, and so revered our new Prime Minister, ‘Micky’ Savage”. Micky, or “Joe”, was the party’s benevolent front man, although much of the policy was driven by Peter Fraser and Walter Nash.
Within a few years of being elected a Christmas bonus had been issued to the poor and unemployed, old-age pensions restored and increased, a 40-hour week was introduced, free secondary school education instated, as was a state housing scheme aimed at providing every New Zealander with a home Nash said would be “fit for a cabinet minister”.
The Social Security Act was the party’s pièce de résistance, installing a free health system, a means-tested old-age pension at 60, and superannuation at 65. At the election held the following month Labour seemed invincible, winning 53 seats against National’s 25.
But nirvana never lasts, and it wasn’t long before questions were asked about the cost of the system and the value of state involvement in personal lives. Over the decades the welfare system has been blamed for everything that is wrong with this country; it’s said to sap people of their drive, energy and will to work. Which is easy to say when you are earning well and living in prosperous times. It is harder to comprehend how tough life had been for many people, and how gratefully the policies were received. As historian Erik Olssen noted: “Savage and his Cabinet appear[ed] to have put New Zealand back on its true course as the most advanced and humane society in the world…”