New Zealand has long enjoyed a widespread reputation for advanced, and even adventurous, social welfare legislation. This reputation is by no means entirely undeserved, but actual performance has been more varied than the reputation might suggest.
During the first half-century of European settlement (1840–90), a small population of British origin, an underdeveloped economy, and pioneering conditions, inevitably meant a generally low standard of living with little capital accumulation. Typical of the situation were frequent instances of severe hardship which usually affected relatively small numbers of people, considerable reliance on self-help and informal community support for those in need, and an attempt to meet the more intractable welfare problems by a reliance on the traditional British remedies of private charity and a locally administered Poor Law. The attempt to use traditional methods in a new setting failed, the Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act 1885 being the last major effort in this direction. The years 1890–1960 saw the development of a very different system of welfare services.
It is a striking fact that the main parts of the present system were evolved during two brief bursts of legislative activity, the first in the closing years of the nineteenth century; the second in the period immediately prior to the Second World War. Each of these bursts of activity followed a period of unusually severe economic depression; each was the work of a government recently come to power; and each was followed by a long period of unspectacular, piecemeal, but sometimes very important, developments and adjustments. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the welfare services established in the two main legislative periods have been concerned largely with, first, the overcoming of the consequences of poverty; second, preventing future poverty; and, third, the progressive removal of economic impediments to the general social welfare of families and individuals. It is also not surprising, though unfortunate, that the very strength and importance of these concerns should have resulted in a comparative neglect of many of the less tangible, but no less important, impediments to welfare.