Social Security Act passed

14 September 1938

Social Security Building, Wellington, 1939 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/4-049203-G)

The cornerstone of the first Labour government’s welfare programme, the Social Security Act overhauled the pension system and extended benefits for families, invalids and the unemployed.

From the late 19th century New Zealand had gained a reputation as the ‘social laboratory of the world’ and a ‘working man’s paradise’, but this status was severely challenged by the harsh economic conditions of the 1930s Great Depression. High unemployment, grim work camps and queues at soup kitchens shocked many New Zealanders.

Labour won the 1935 election arguing that every New Zealander had a right to a reasonable standard of living. The community was responsible for ensuring that people were not overwhelmed by circumstances against which they could not protect themselves. Labour’s ultimate response to the Depression was the Social Security Act.

The Act combined the introduction of a free-at-the-point-of-use health system with a comprehensive array of welfare benefits. It was financed by a tax surcharge of one shilling in the pound, or 5%. Supporters envisaged a scheme that would protect New Zealanders ‘from the cradle to the grave’.