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A Civilised Community: A History of Social Security in New Zealand 1898-1998

by Margaret McClure, Auckland University Press

Juliet Elworthy
Social Policy Agency

The parameters of "A Civilised Community" are set out in its Introduction. First, the book was commissioned by the Department of Social Welfare as a history of income support, defined as the state’s programmes of regular cash transfers to its citizens through a statutory national system. Second, it has attempted to include the perspectives of consumers of social security. In keeping with these parameters, "A Civilised Community" is a history of social security rather than social welfare, and is based largely on material from the files of the Department of Social Welfare and its predecessors, including correspondence from "ordinary individuals".

In the Introduction, Margaret McClure describes the account as a social history which traces both income support — in particular, major shifts in its ethos — and those affected by it, with the aim being "to put flesh on the bones of earlier accounts and take a broader view of the participants in social security history" (p.2). Noting the complexity of social security, McClure says that the account also "aims to reflect some of this complexity and convey the continuing tensions in social security policy-making" (p.4).

Its status as a commissioned history inevitably places some restrictions on the book’s scope. With its subtitle of "A History of Social Security", the book accordingly omits discussion of the history of other forms of income support that have played a role in New Zealand but do not come under the general umbrella of "social security". Accident Compensation is discussed principally with reference to the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security, with regard to basic differences at this time between Accident Compensation and the Commission’s proposed approach to social security. Earlier, in discussion of social security in the 1950s and 1960s, reference is made to the Needy Families Scheme administered by the Child Welfare Division of the Ministry of Education. This raises the questions of how Child Welfare got involved, under what mandate, and for what ends, but these issues are not discussed.

The book’s status as a history has also resulted in a chronological approach to its material. McClure states in the introduction that the chronological organisation has been chosen "because change in any one security provision needs to be seen in the context of what is happening to the whole system, and the ways in which these are a response to the mood of the times" (p.5). This is true, and discussion under themes would no doubt have involved repetition. However, this approach also constrains some of the discussion, with themes that lend themselves to substantive discussion raised and then put to one side. For example, a discussion of the lack of recognition for unemployed women in the Depression concludes with an overview of the meagre assistance they received, and finishes with the statement, "Nevertheless, women’s activism in these years meant that working women’s rights would be less easily dismissed by the planners of social security" (p.52). It would have been of much interest for the text then to proceed to discuss relevant developments, but the chronological approach does not allow for this.

However, within these constraints, "A Civilised Community" provides a useful and timely exposition of the development of social security in New Zealand, the different paths this has taken, proposals for options which did not reach fruition, and the needs, beliefs and attitudes which formed the backdrop to policies of income support. McClure states in her introduction the intention that the overview will highlight the concept of "community" as central to the history of social security in New Zealand, with regard to the nature of provisions reflecting notions of interdependence within society, the acceptability or lack of acceptability of different groups at different times, and signals to "ordinary people" about how they should live. This has been achieved, assisted in particular through the quotations from Departmental records — from Ministers and public servants, as well as consumers and other "ordinary people" — which provide context for discussion of and decisions about directions for social security.

In keeping with its aim of reflecting the complexity and tensions of social security policy, the book conveys well the competition between groups for priority in social security provision, and the shifts in ideas that have led to change. A recurring theme is the arbitrary and ad-hoc nature of much change, with decisions often made not with reference to relevant information, even where this was available, but on the basis of perceived acceptability, expediency and the values of the time.

A particular achievement of the history is its depiction of what McClure terms the "humanitarian myth" of the New Zealand welfare state. Essentially, from the beginnings of social security provision, a general view has prevailed that the New Zealand system provides liberal and even lavish assistance to all. McClure’s history shows cogently how, over time, this reputation often "obscured the limitations" (p.258) of what was actually provided, and contributed to a disregard of the unmet needs of some groups.

Of particular interest is the book’s account of the social security system’s failure to deliver income support to Maori on the same basis as it did to Pakeha, from the beginnings of formal provision in the 1880s until the relatively recent period of the late 1940s. McClure shows that the reasons were complex, involving a mix of prejudice against Maori, reflecting a wider social antipathy; fears of likely misspending of social security and the risk of encouraging "idleness" among Maori; and less hostile but nevertheless restrictive beliefs, founded on assumptions about the communal nature of Maori lifestyle, that Maori required less income support than Pakeha because their needs would be less. This discussion should be essential reading for anyone interested in the concept of institutional racism in the public sector.

The book also usefully highlights concepts and approaches for social security that have recurred throughout the history of the New Zealand welfare state. Perhaps as part of the "humanitarian myth", current popular critiques of social security are often ahistorical. Advocates of changes often seem to assume that the welfare state has never previously been challenged, and to be unaware that the changes they are suggesting may have been previously advanced, and sometimes even acted upon. It is salutary to read a comment like, "Society... soothes its conscience by thinking it is providing for the poor, whereas in sober fact it is merely drugging itself and poisoning them" (pages 13—14), and to see that it was made in 1888; or like, "Welfare work cannot offer a ‘cure’ or final solutions. It cannot change people, it cannot guarantee to ‘cure’ the misfits or socially unhealthy" (p.l48), and to see that it was written in 1959. The text shows that concepts like "work for the dole" and "voucher systems", and heated debate about the risk of income support encouraging "unorthodox families", are far from new. In an election year, when income maintenance always runs the risk of becoming a political football, it is valuable to be reminded that these paths have been traversed before.

While the book is successful in conveying the complexities and tensions in the development of social security, it is perhaps less successful in fulfilling its aim of "putting flesh on the bones" of this history. Its use of the actual words of actual people does help to advance this aim. The quotations from members of the public often graphically illustrate the very real fears and concerns of consumers. It is also refreshing to read comments, not made for official publication, from the decision-makers, both Ministers and officials, especially as these illustrate the different roles each group has played, and that their positions have not always coincided. Commentaries on social security developments are also quoted to illustrate people’s responses to social security developments.

However, "A Civilised Community" is essentially descriptive rather than analytical. This is particularly the case in the final chapters of the book which outline recent changes in provision, but make little comment on their likely implications, or the views of the people to whom they are targeted. The Conclusion section, in addition to summarising the main developments covered within the book, does raise some interesting questions about possible future directions for social security, in the context of these recent changes and with reference to the themes, which have dominated New Zealand social security. While I appreciate that the book was not intended to suggest a blueprint for the future, some further development of this section would perhaps have been helpful.

I have one criticism about the format. The text is broken up with many photographs, and also sketches from the early years. These seem distracting rather than useful additions to the text. The relevance of most of them to "social security" is not apparent, and even the most recent photographs seem quaint and dated.

Overall, "A Civilised Community" is a useful, clearly written account of social security in New Zealand. The book effectively depicts the complexities of the development of New Zealand’s social security system, and maintains a focus on the people who have been part of this — either as decision-makers, consumers or members of the community that, however indirectly, influenced the directions it has taken.

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Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 12

A Civilised Community: A History of Social Security in New Zealand 1898-1998 by Margaret McClure

Jul 1999

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