Tribally based economies were increasingly undermined through land loss. The boom of the mid-1800s gave way to a different economy. While Māori often continued to work in whānau or hapū groups it was no longer as part of a tribal enterprise. They worked for wages for the government, Pākehā entrepreneurs or farmers. The Māori economy soon developed into one of subsistence living.
By the 1870s Māori men were increasingly working for wages for someone else, which in many cases paid better than farming for themselves. From the 1880s Māori became shearers, beginning in Hawke’s Bay and then throughout the country. Shearing was carried out by whānau and hapū.
Kauri gum digging was done on both a hapū and individual basis. Whitebaiting was carried out by Māori in the North and South islands, both as a source of food and additional income when sold to Pākehā. In the South Island tītī (muttonbirds) were harvested and sold by Ngāi Tahu families. Many Māori were sharecroppers on land owned by Pākehā farmers.
By the 1900s a number of Māori were involved in sheep farming on the East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa. At the beginning of the 1900s the government was providing land and finance to Pākehā smallholders. At the same time it was purchasing large tracts of land from Māori. Between 1891 and 1911 around 1.5 million hectares of land were purchased by the Liberal government.
It was not until the late 1920s that Native Minister Āpirana Ngata was able to secure government money to help Māori develop their land. By 1939 land development was a significant source of work, employing 5,000 Māori.
While it was hoped that the development schemes would see the Māori workforce becoming farmers, there were a number of fundamental problems. By the mid-20th century farming was becoming more mechanised and required less labour than previously. Most of the best agricultural land had been purchased or confiscated by the government. Māori often held poor or rugged land.
The Māori population was growing significantly, and there was not enough land left for Māori to farm. In 1960 there were 2,116 Māori farms, and around 0.75 million hectares of land under Māori incorporations and trusts, but there were simply not enough farms or work to go around.