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Oral History: 1930s Depression

Poverty: The 'Welfare State' Arrives

The relief available to the poor in the 1890s was meagre. It was also conditional on moral conduct. The Benevolent Institution sent inspectors to interview needy cases and recipients were held to account for their behaviour. Families with children were always supported regardless of the parents' moral demeanour but adults had to make a good case for their on-going support. State provision of welfare assistance developed gradually through the study period. Old Age Pensions were available from 1898 and Widows' Pensions were in place by 1911. The Labour Government's Social Security Act in 1938 was a landmark event, internationally as well as for New Zealand. It promised a state-funded social security system 'from the cradle to the grave'.

South Dunedin houseWomen were particularly vulnerable to poverty at several stages of their life cycle. Unmarried girls who became pregnant were one 'at risk' group. But widowhood or desertion by your husband was almost as bad and this affected women aged 35-50 years of age the most. Their low earning capacity was compounded by childcare responsibilities. This 1883 photograph is of the South Dunedin house where seven year old Harry Wain died of neglect and abuse. (Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

Mr C. W. FountainThe community recognised the difficulties faced by the elderly and women whose husbands had died. These were the earliest groups to receive decent levels of state assistance. Old Age Pensions were introduced in 1898, subject to certain restrictions. The Widows' Pension was available to those with dependent children from 1911. The veteran bowler shown in this photo was one of Dunedin's oldest residents at the time. Mr C. W. Fountain was 94 years of age. (Otago Witness, 25 February 1930, Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

relief schemesMany colonists thought they had left poverty behind in coming to New Zealand. They were not only unwilling to admit to its existence here. but they also thought that governments should offer work to the unemployed in a new country still being developed. Public works schemes reflected this belief. In the 1890s many unemployed men - though no women - received relief in this form. During the early part of the 1930s the New Zealand concept of the dignity of work was challenged by the very nature of the relief schemes set up by the government - as set out in this newspaper advertisement from the Labour opposition. (Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

Wooden HousesBy international standards the suburbs of southern had relatively few extremes of wealth or poverty in 1900. While the mansions of St Clair and the hovels of Maria Street might have seemed worlds apart, a remarkable mix of housing types was more typical across 'the Flat'. This was especially striking when compared to Britain, from which most of the settlers had come. By 1940, comparisons with Britain seemed less relevant to the people of 'the Flat'. The children and grandchildren of the original settlers had higher expectations than their migrant relatives. Memories of the slums of London, Glasgow or Dublin no longer made the conditions of Dunedin's poor seem acceptable. New Zealand now led the world in social welfare provision. These recently renovated wooden cottages are typical of many built on very small South Dunedin sections probably surveyed originally for tent sites. (Caversham Project Archives)

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