Old-age Pensions Act becomes law

1 November 1898

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

The act gave a small means-tested pension to elderly men and women with few assets who were ‘of good moral character’ and had for the previous five years been leading a ‘sober and reputable life’. Germany had earlier introduced a contributory state pension, but New Zealand's was the first in the world funded from general taxation. 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.

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 $3850 in 2022). Only those with an annual income of £34 ($7275) or less and property valued at no more than £50 ($10,700) 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; Asian people were specifically excluded, even if they were naturalised citizens.