Monday, March 14, 2011

On the Old Age Pensions Act of 1898

The Old Age Pensions Act of 1898 is not one in which present-day New Zealanders can take much pride—it is, however, important as a beginning of the non-contributory system. The idea came from Tom Paine's Agrarian Justice of 1796, it was formulated in New Zealand by Atkinson, the pressure for its adoption came from the Knights of Labour and trades unions who assisted the small farmers to get the government they wanted, it was adopted by the Liberals as a social palliative and a political slogan, it was made possible by refrigeration which gave more wealth to the wealthy, farms to the land hungry, economic expansion to New Zealand and political success to the Liberals. And it gave 6s. lid. a week to the virtuous poor.

To get the 6s. lid. a man or woman had to be 65 years old, have lived in New Zealand 25 years, have a good moral character, led a sober and reputable life for the preceding five years, not deserted wife (husband) or children at any time, not in the preceding 25 years been in gaol for a period of five years, nor in the preceding 12 years been in goal for four months or on four occasions for an offence 'dishonouring in the public estimation', have a yearly income of less than £34 hi which free board and lodging was to be valued at £26 and possess furniture, house, and other property valued at less than £270 (plus £50 for personal effects, etc.). The provisions as to imprisonment meant that there were different punishments for the same crime. If a convicted person was not poor he received his gaol sentence and that was complete expiation as far as society was concerned; if the person was poor he got his gaol sentence plus deprivation of old age pension.

The narrowness and illiberality of the majority of legislators may be further judged by the fact that no Asiatic,* naturalized or not, nor aliens, could receive a pension, that the Old Age Pension-Claim Register was open for inspection, that pension claims had to be investigated in open Court before a Magistrate, that a pensioner imprisoned for 12 months or more lost his pension in addition to the punishment, that a pensioner convicted for drunkenness could lose his pension at the discretion of the Court (i.e. the penalty after 65 was greater than that before that age). In 1900 the Act was further tightened up by providing that the allowable income of a married couple was to be no more than £45 a year instead of £68. This saved the state some money.


The Pensions Act and its administration weighed against the Maoris (sic). First, they found great difficulty in proving age; secondly, most of them had shares in ancestral land, and were deemed to get income from it, even though it yielded none and could not be sold. After 1900 the staff of the Pensions Department was increased for the specific purpose of finding reasons for striking pensioners (particularly Maoris) off the roll. [92-94]

W.B. Sutch. The Quest for Security in New Zealand, 1940 to 1966. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1966.

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