Old-age Pensions Act becomes law

1 November 1898

Presenting old-age pension certificate for payment, c. 1899 (Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990929-1-3)

A world first, the Act gave a small means-tested pension to elderly people with few assets who were ‘of good moral character’. It was one of the major achievements of Richard Seddon’s Liberal government.

The Liberal reforms of the 1890s attracted international interest and seemed to symbolise New Zealand’s egalitarian ethos. The groundbreaking legislation of 1898 was based on the principle that the state had some responsibility for elderly citizens who were not able to provide for themselves.

Funded from general taxation, the amount on offer was small. Applicants had to meet certain criteria to qualify for a pension of at most £18 per year (equivalent to $3200 today). Only those with an annual income of £34 (about $6000) or less and property valued at no more than £50 ($8800) received the full amount. Proof was required that the applicant was aged at least 65, which disadvantaged the many Māori whose births had not been registered. Applicants had to have lived in New Zealand for the previous 25 years, but Chinese were specifically excluded.