Story: Voluntary welfare organisations

Page 4. Depression and the welfare state

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Voluntary welfare in the depression

The economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s saw existing voluntary organisations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Red Cross supplementing government and hospital-board assistance to the unemployed and their families.

Depression and joy

At the height of the depression in 1932, some Wellington businessmen established the Smith Family Joyspreaders. Members of the organisation distributed Christmas parcels, sent children to health camps and provided them with school uniforms. They ran a boot repair shop for the unemployed and provided a library service for men working in relief camps. Because the help was given anonymously, many people received assistance without knowing their benefactor was the Smith Family.

In Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, church city missions, especially those of the Anglicans and Methodists, gained a high profile. Their missioners and deaconesses distributed food, clothing and fuel, ran children’s health camps, dosshouses and jumble sales, and provided health services and legal aid. They tried to raise spirits through community ‘singalongs’ and other forms of entertainment. Increasingly, they and other voluntary agencies were overwhelmed by the scale of demand.

One effect of the depression was to raise questions about the efficiency of voluntary charity. There were calls for the state to take greater responsibility for welfare arrangements. The depression also prompted informal welfare exchanges within families and among neighbours.

Friendly societies rise and fall

In the 20th century, especially as economic uncertainty increased, the insurance role of the friendly societies became more important than their social role. In 1938 their total membership peaked at nearly 114,000 (in a population of 1.6 million). In that year the Social Security Act 1938 established the modern welfare state, undermining the societies’ role as the principal means of protection against the financial impact of sickness.

The impact of the welfare state

After the implementation of the 1935 Labour government’s policies of economic protectionism, full employment and social security, it seemed that charities would no longer be necessary. This was not the case, as not all needs could be met through economic means. Charities continued to provide advice and services, and were often better placed than state agencies to offer speedy, short-term and community-based relief.

Plenty to do

Winefride Dive became a social worker for the Society for the Protection of Women and Children in 1939. She found no shortage of work, despite the advent of the welfare state: ‘I found myself dealing with domestic upheavals, unmarried mothers, old people, neighbours’ quarrels … Social Security had hardly been established then and the unfortunate wives who sought Court Orders for Maintenance had a pretty raw time.’1

Politicians recognised that voluntary agencies provided useful testing grounds for new or controversial services, and they generally saw state and voluntary social services as complementary.

New charitable trusts

Some major charitable trusts were formed at the end of the 1930s. The McKenzie Trusts, fostered by successive generations of a family associated with a leading New Zealand chain store, were set up from 1938. The Sutherland Self Help Trusts, which grew from the wealth generated by a grocery business, started in 1941.

  1. Winefride M. Dive, ‘The Society for the Protection of Home and Family.’ New Zealand Social Worker 6, no. 1 (1970), p. 11. Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant, 'Voluntary welfare organisations - Depression and the welfare state', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Margaret Tennant, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 Sep 2018