News

Reflections on the Social Security Act 1938

Child Poverty Action Group and Holy Trinity Cathedral held a joint celebration on Monday night to draw attention to the significance of the Social Security Act that Michael Joseph Savage introduced 75 years ago.

The audience reflected the make-up of the communities of New Zealand; teenagers, social commentators, academics, politicians, urban Māori, the Pacific community, worried citizens and members of the parish who all came together to reflect on the heritage of the Michael Joseph Savage’s vision.

The Social Security Act 1938 followed the miseries of the Great Depression and gave birth to New Zealand’s modern welfare state.  Taxpayer-funded healthcare, pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits provided protection on a wide basis for the first time.  The need for stigmatising charity for mere survival was virtually eliminated.  The following years saw the welfare state expanded to be widely inclusive including  generous universal pensions and family benefits for all children. 

Child Poverty Action Group and Holy Trinity Cathedral held a joint celebration on Monday night to draw attention to the significance of the Social Security Act that Michael Joseph Savage introduced 75 years ago.

The audience reflected the make-up of the communities of New Zealand; teenagers, social commentators, academics, politicians, urban Māori, the Pacific community, worried citizens and members of the parish who all came together to reflect on the heritage of the Michael Joseph Savage’s vision.

The Social Security Act 1938 followed the miseries of the Great Depression and gave birth to New Zealand’s modern welfare state.  Taxpayer-funded healthcare, pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits provided protection on a wide basis for the first time. 

The need for stigmatising charity for mere survival was virtually eliminated.  The following years saw the welfare state expanded to be widely inclusive including  generous universal pensions and family benefits for all children.   

Economist Professor Paul Dalziel spoke of how the Savage Labour Government realised “there is no way of dealing with poverty except by getting to the people who are poorly paid”. He contrasted that approach with the trickle-down theories of recent governments that have lost sight of the importance for decent work to raise people’s wellbeing.

Senior Lecturer Mamari Stephens explored the ambivalence that both Māori and the Crown have had towards seeking Māori welfare outcomes, in the context of system that was never designed to cater for Māori socio-economic needs.  She highlighted Māori approaches such as the Whanau Ora model that presents Māori solutions to issues unique to Māori.

Associate Professor Susan St John contrasted the inclusiveness of the previous Family Benefit and the success it had in addressing poverty with the current design of the current working for families tax credits.

She reported that two weeks ago the Court of Appeal found the part of Working for Families paid to the mother only if she is in a so called ‘working’ family was discriminatory and caused material harm to the beneficiary families who were excluded.

“This harm is experienced by 230,000 children who are already New Zealand’s most disadvantaged, and disproportionately affects Maori and Pacifica children.

CPAG is dismayed that the Court then decided that the possibility that some tiny numbers of sole  mothers might be incentivised to do at least 20 hours paid work, justified this harm.” Says St John

Bryan Bruce’s documentaries show how much has changed in New Zealand as it now rates below average in all key indicators for child wellbeing. In the post war period with the advantages of a more egalitarian society New Zealand would have been well above average.

“Too many of our children are dying from poverty related diseases. Others  bear life-long physical, mental and emotional damage, and grow up to endure poverty as adults,” says St John. “The evidence is that families are slipping into ever more desperate situations especially with the implementation of recent very harsh and under-scrutinised welfare reform policies”

CPAG hopes that Labour can rediscover some of the outrage that Michael Savage and other parliamentarians felt when they saw the impact of the Great Depression. The time is well past for decisive action.