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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 4, No. 10. September 18, 1941

Poverty and Progress

page 3

Poverty and Progress

The social services of any community are of great importance to anyone who wishes to judge its standard of civilization since they show how far it is able and willing to provide for the basic needs of those of its members who, for various reasons, cannot earn their own living. Dr. Sutch's new book "Poverty and Progress in New Zealand" (procurable for 5/- from Modern Books, Woodward Street) outlines the development in this country of such services as education, pensions, hospitals and unemployment relief and enables us to judge how far and for what reasons New Zealand has progressed in this sphere.

The development of a system of social services—from charitable relief for a few of those who were sufficiently "meek of spirit, destitute of temporal goods, chaste, and of good conversation" to the imposing structure of Social Security to-day—gains meaning only when it is related to the wider changes in the society in which it has occured. As Dr. Sutch points out it was the breakdown of the older system of charitable relief in the depression of the 'eighties and the consequent suffering and discontent that led to the reforms that gained New Zealand the reputation of being a Pacific Utopia at the beginning of this century. In the same way the legislation of the Labour Government in these matters was the result of the misery and bitterness from the inadequacy of social services during the last depression.

Reasons for Progress.

But the evidence in this book leaves one with little doubt that New Zealand has built up to-day a system of social services equalled by very few other countries. At first sight it is rather difficult to understand why this should be so. One can hardly regard it as the result of an unusually highly developed moral, cultural or political consciousness on the part of the typical New Zealander, who, as Dr. Sutch points out, might be rather unkindly described as one who thinks "that H. G. Wells is a scientist, Cezanne is a corsetiere, and that Marx had brothers." Nor does it seem altogether reasonable to asscribe it to the peculiar inspiration and genius of New Zealand politicians. A fact which is of obvious importance, however, is that those interests in New Zealand which have opposed progress in social services are less fortunate than their counterparts overseas in that they have neither an established church nor an aristocracy which can lend to the status quo the sanctions of the Scriptures and Debrett. However, it might be dangerous to draw from this too rosy a picture of the future of colonial democracy—Grey's description of the Old Age Pension Bill of 1882 as "a blow at Christianity itself, a blow at the family, an attempt to make every single individual a part of a great Communistic society," has a depressingly contemporary ring.

Axe or Poultice?

A section of the book which should be of particular interest to the general reader is that dealing with the depression of the early nineteen-thirties and the efforts to deal with the unemployment problem in that period. Dr. Sutch's account of the advent of the crisis is extremely clear and his description of the disastrously inadequate methods of relieving the sufferings of the unemployed is both convincing and grim. One may hope that the events of the depression have been sufficient to drive home the lesson that the unemployment problem is the result not of the wickedness or laziness of the unemployed but of the system under which we live.

This raises the question as to how far social services can be an alternative to reform in the economic system and whether or not the application of hot poultices may, under certain conditions, be a somewhat inadequate substitute for the axe that must be laid to the roots of the tree. There can be no clear-cut answer to such a question, but it is obvious that no set of social institutions, however suited to human needs, can obviate cases of individual hardship which must be met by social services. On the other hand, when those institutions fail to fulfill their purpose it is no longer sufficient to endeavour to soften the suffering they cause—we must break them, or they will break us.