The Maori Urban Migration

National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, University of Waikato Seminar: 23 August, 2012 ( am grateful to Joan Metge and Ian Pool for assistance with various aspects of this paper; the errors remain mine.)

This paper is based on Chapter 34 the book I am writing: <>Not in Narrow Seas, which is a history of New Zealand from an economic perspective. Thus far I have written over 250,000 words up to the 1970s. It will take me about a further two years to get up to the present. The purpose of Chapter 34 is to get Maori into the modern economy; it describes the second great Maori migration which occurred in the last 60 years. There will be one after, describing them there.

There are eight chapters about the Maori economy – probably 40,000 and more words – and Maori appear in many other chapters. This will be, I think, the largest work on the Maori economy since The Economics of the Maori by Raymond Firth but it only looked at the pre-market economy. This account will be more comprehensive and uses a range of reports and scholarship to which Firth did not have access.

There are many earlier chapters on the Maori and their ancestors, beginning with their roots in Central Polynesia, following with their arrival here 700 years ago. An economist observes that for most of this time since then the Maori economy has been a subsistence one.

The term “subsistence” is not, for an economist, a value laden one. It is used to describe a community which is largely economically self-sufficient. There may be some trade, but it is typically a small proportion of total consumption. With the arrival of the market, there may be some commercial work – perhaps wages, perhaps the selling of the farm surplus.

A theme of the book is modernisation, one aspect of which is the increasing role of the market. Those of European descent would do well to remember that most of their ancestors lived in a largely subsistence economy. Indeed it seems likely that many small settler farms were largely subsistence until the 1880s.

A consequence of self-sufficiency is a lack of specialisation. Today, we take for granted Adam Smith’s insight that the market enables specialisation which gives a higher average material standard of living. Those who are more self-sufficient cannot reap economies of scale and learning so that a subsistence economy tends to have a lower material standard of living than a market driven one. But that does not mean that it is necessarily lower or inferior on other human dimensions.

The Maori economy was dominated by subsistence activities, even in the first part of the twentieth century. We know this, despite the lack of data, not only from anecdote but because Ngata’s economic policies were to shift Maori from subsistence to commercial economic activities. As the great man said:

“There are Maori communities which are satisfied to live on minimal reserves, where they grow the vegetables they require, from which they make seasonal excursions into the labour field to obtain the minimum resource for the purchase of clothes and food, and where they [live a country life] between periods of employment.”

For over a century after the European arrival Maori remained a rural people. Some lived in towns or small urban areas, but typically they were a part of their iwi’s region and their marae – with its central role in communal life – and the whanau was not far away. Numbers in these urban areas – with the exception of Auckland – were up to the size of a large hapu – 434 in total in Wellington on the 1926 Census night.

There were 1162 Maori in the Auckland urban area. While over 70 percent of Maori were located in the Auckland region – north of Taupo – only 1.8 percent of all Maori lived in Auckland in 1926.

Note that the Statistics New Zealand definition of urban is a town of 5000 people or more. (A Maori who shifted from Kaitai in the 1950s to Auckland – the sort of migration Joan Metge tracked – would not have changed their urban status for statisitical purposes.) In 1926 some 15 percent of Maori met this definition of urban living; today it is 84 percent. Even more revealing is that aside from Auckland and Wellington, the largest urban centres of Maori in 1926 were Gisborne, Napier, Wanganui – which like Auckland and Wellington – had substantial Maori settlements around which the European towns were built.

There had been a slow migration to the cities in the interwar period. It is sometimes argued it accelerated during the Second World War; perhaps one can see this in the data, perhaps not. Perhaps the Great Depression delayed the drift in the 1930s. However it was a trickle compared to the urbanisation flood after the war.

The urban growth was primarily in the four main centres (initially, and mainly, Auckland). They housed only one in ten of the Maori population in 1926. By 1971 four out of ten lived there while more than two out of ten lived in the other urban centres with populations over 25,000. Currently the urban proportion in the big cities is not overly different from the non-Maori proportion. (It crossed the 50 percent threshold before 1926.)

Population Growth

The proportions obscure the massive population growth that was occurring. The definitions may not be comparable but the 1926 census records 70,000 or so of Maori descent; the 2006 Census says there were 640,000 but there were over 130,000 Maori living permanently overseas (and those temporarily there on Census night). Given there would have been few overseas in 1926, the Maori population in the world probably increased by a factor of eleven in eighty years – a population growth rate in excess of 3 percent p.a.

This is a rate somewhat higher than the maximum that demographers would normally of think as sustainable for a population, but Maori were breaking no biological rule. Instead many children had one parent of Maori descent and the other non-Maori.

For much of the interwar period Maori had a high rate of fertility in the range of 6 to 7 births per woman. Non-Maori had been at that level in the 1880s but over the following century they had gone through a slow fertility transition down to close to 2 births per woman by around the 1980s. The Maori fertility rate remained high until the early 1960s and then collapsed over the following two decades to close to the non-Maori rate. The reasons for this exceptionally fast transition are complex, but urbanisation was most certainly one, evident in the differential fertility rates by location.

The Drivers of Maori Urbanisation

What caused the urbanisation? Undoubtedly there were Maori who went to the cities because there were prospects of lifestyles, incomes and careers which a rural society was unable to provide. But many more were driven into the urban areas because there were insufficient prospects in the countryside. One study found migration from a region in the early 1960s was associated with poor-quality housing and low incomes.

In 1926 almost half of the Maori labour force said their main occupations were fishing, farming, forestry or mining, about 21,000 in total. By the 2006 Census there were 16,000 employed in these industries, only 7.8 percent of the Maori labour force. The story becomes a familiar one for the entire labour force. Because there were limits on the land available and because higher production was associated with less labour per unit of land, the primary sector was unable to generate sufficient employment for the burgeoning population.

The urbanisation was hardly expected. With the exception of the chapter on economic circumstances by Horace Belshaw, professor of economics at Auckland University College, elaborated below, there are no references to it in The Maori People Today, published in 1940. The contributors were thinking about the future of the Maori. How could they get it so wrong?

Consider Apirana Ngata, at the centre of the Maori revival in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in 1874 when the Maori population was still declining, he reached adulthood about the time it reached its nadir and when the turnaround was still not obvious. He grew up in a rural community, and turned down the prospect of a successful career as an Auckland lawyer to go back to ancestral lands on the East Cape.

The reality he faced was that the vast majority of Maori were rurally based and most were hardly prospering. The immediate economic issue was the ‘cultivation of the land’. While there was considerable progress, it seems unlikely that the living standard of the typical commercial Maori farmer was comparable with that of the Pakeha farmer, while many remained subsistence farmers and others were landless. However Ngata’s strategy had assumptions which proved wrong after his death.

Belshaw set out the problem as follows.

Estimates based on observations, on discussions with Maori leaders, and on information from Departmental sources, would suggest that when existing freehold land is fully developed about 5000 farms will be established, supporting say 20,000 people or one-quarter of the present population. This will leave 60,000 not provided for by farming on native lands even if the population does not increase.

Belshaw concluded “[e]ven though the above estimates may be subject to a wide margin of error, there is an unambiguous picture of a people whose land resources are inadequate, so that a great and increasing majority must find other means of livelihood.” While there was considerable variation by region,”[n]o tribe has sufficient land to support all its people.”

He thought Maori had to find employment in other rural activities. His doubts about the difficulties of urban migration prove, in retrospect, excessively pessimistic. One reason may have been that bumped around on half-formed roads in his tour of Maori farming, he under-estimated the coming communications and transport revolutions. As they transformed in the post-war era, urban Maori found it increasingly easy to keep in touch with the folks back home.

Attitudes to the New Arrivals

It would be foolish to argue that there was no racism towards Maori in New Zealand in the middle of the twentieth century although it was moderate compared to the approach to minorities in – say – other English speaking settler colonies. One factor was marriage between the indigenous and settler peoples. Another was that, with most Maori in the countryside and most Pakeha living in towns, the two peoples rarely interacted. Urbanisation increased the interaction, and the possibility of racism became sharper.

On the other hand the low unemployment in the early post-war era moderated the worst outbreaks. Many Maori were pulled into the cities by job opportunities, as much as pushed by the job shortages in the places they grew up. Because demand in the labour market was strong they were not really competing with anybody much, and so a standard source of racial tension in other cultures was not as present.

There was a common view among non-Maori that Maori should “assimilate” – they should become brown Pakeha (although the advocates would not use that term; more likely they would say “become like us”). However majoritarianism was more a matter of political rhetoric than social reality, a reality which enabled Maori to maintain and adapt their culture for the new conditions, rather than abandon it.

Pakeha majoritarianism tends to treat all Maori as the same – as a unity. There was no unity before the arrival of the European; even the name “Maori” was adopted after – it means “ordinary”. Maori society remains largely organised on an iwi basis. While relations between iwi can be generous and cooperative when the need arises – hospitality is central to Maori relations – the distinctions between iwi are jealously guarded. Perhaps the only occasion one sees unity among the Maori is when they are dealing with the government – and not always then.


The flows were not even across the map. Initially there was movement to local towns and then on to Auckland. This urbanisation involved much longer migration and different iwi, well illustrated in Joan Metge’s study of the connections between the Far North (Muriwhenua) and Auckland. Still a six hour drive between them, the physical connection was a far greater challenge in the early 1950s. Yet the rural and urban communities managed to stay in touch far more intimately than those involved in the thirteenth-century Polynesian migration or the nineteenth century British one could. Even so there were significant differences and tensions which continue to this day.

The ongoing connections were a major reason why the assimilationist strategy could never work. As long as the urban dwellers were robustly attached to a rural community deeply immersed in and fiercely committed to its own culture, the migrants could not easily abandon it either.

Yet they had to have their own institutions in their urban environment. In the cities the rural migrants were often manuhiri (visitors) with restricted rights compared to the tangata whenua (people of the land) – rights which were integral to Maori cultural practices. If the marae was the centre of social life back home, how were the manuhiri to have a comparable centre in the territory of another iwi? Solutions were slowly found; nowadays non-local marae of various status are common (the mihi which begin meetings acknowledge the position of the tangata whenua).

The notion of a chain of migrants is well understood; a few intrepid souls settle successfully in the new land, and others follow, relying on the pioneers’ guidance and hospitality to settle in. The success of one new settlement encourages others to move onto the next city. Thus it was with Auckland. The success there was followed by migration to other urban centres. The movement was dominated by teenagers and early twenties , with the women younger. Later they invited their elders. The great drive which generated the inflow into Auckland ended in the 1970s after which population growth was dominated by births. Other centres began absorbing the dispersing Maori.

The outcome is nicely illustrated by Christchurch whose region’s tangata whenua – always small – had been decimated by Ngati Toa raids in 1831. Despite being New Zealand’s third largest urban area, it had the seventh to largest Maori population in 1926; eighth in 1951. By 2006 it was third.

Maori are about as urban today as Pakeha, although many practise a different sort of urbanisation both in terms of the lives they lead in the cities and their connections with the countryside;  they continue to visit regularly their whanau marae, for extended family occasions as well for holidays. (They visit more often than Metge records in the 1950s, given the greater ease of travel and ownership of cars.) Of course some Pakeha have holiday homes (or perhaps rural family bases where the children stay regularly), while perhaps a fifth with Maori descent have little connection to their whanau roots.

Adapting to Cities

There is a sense in which many Maori were not well adapted to urban life, what Belshaw called the “imperatives of changing capitalism”. To give but one illustration, consider educational and training attainment. Despite the emphasis placed on it by Ngata, Belshaw and others, Maori markedly lagged behind non-Maori in educational achievement.

The 2006 Census reports that in aggregate Maori averaged 2.1 years of attainment of qualifications (where zero is no qualifications – say, leaving school at 15), whereas the non-Maori average was 3.5 years. Now 1.4 years of extra qualifications may not seem much but a Maori born in 1974 had about as much training as a non-Maori born in 1944; in simple terms they are 30 years – more than a generation – behind.

Perhaps the education deficit did not matter for rural living, but it mattered in the cities. Occupationally over half (52.6%) of non-Maori are managers, professionals, technicians or trade workers; but under two-fifths (38.0%) Maori. The difference is larger as the occupational categories become more highly paid.

The consequences of the deficit also appear in the statistics of social failure. Unemployment rates in each age group are higher for Maori than non-Maori. Similarly, even age adjusted, Maori are proportionally more numerous in prison than in the whole population. What we do not know is if we control for socioeconomic background (such as education and training) as well as age, whether the Maori rates of social failure are still higher.

Part of this confusion arises because of the reluctance of New Zealanders to contemplate the existence of socioeconomic class. Certainly many of their ancestors came here to escape the deferential class system of Britain and, equally certainly, foreign models of class do not work well in New Zealand with its large group of self-employed and affluent family farms. But the analysis of class of orthodox social science, based on social gradations which affect life style and choices, applies in New Zealand as much as in any affluent and industrialised society.

The consequence of the neglect is that the existence of a Maori ethclass – despite its considerable internal social gradations – is used as a proxy for class analysis in New Zealand .The unfortunate consequence is policy mistakes, for policies which target only Maori fail to address the majority of the poor. The white poor can object to such targeting, leading to the possibility that middle class good intentions result in working class racialism.

Economic Inequality

The stereotype of Maori as failures applies to poverty too. Certainly the rate of poverty is higher among Maori than non-Maori. However, there are more poor Pakeha than Maori. The totals require the rate to be multiplied by the population numbers; the Pakeha population is so much larger than the Maori one that it swamps the rate difference. This confusion has led to an unfortunate public misunderstanding which equates poverty with Maoriness.

According to the 2006 Census adult Maori gross incomes averaged just over fifth lower than Non-Maori ones. Their market incomes would have been even relatively lower, after deducting social security transfers. (Including children would further depress both relativities.)

There are well-off Maori, but they are proportionally fewer. Taking $100,000 p.a. (about three times the national average) as a cut-off for being well-off, there were 1.3% of Maori reporting exceeding it and 4.0% Non-Maori.

Conversely Maori are over-represented in New Zealand’s lower income distribution. But while relatively more Maori are there in the lower tail of the distribution, their numbers are dwarfed by non-Maori. Almost two out of five adult Maori were below $15,000 p.a. in 2006. But so were a third of Non-Maori; some (33.4%) of them – seven times as many. Low incomes are not a peculiarly Maori phenomenon.

Inequality exists within the Maori population as well as between Maori and Pakeha. Gross income inequality within Maori is slightly less than within non-Maori, probably because the levels of individual social security benefits are the same, and hence higher for Maori relative to their market incomes. It seems likely that the market income distribution may be more unequal for Maori than non-Maori.

The History of Maori Inequality

The historical narrative contributes to an explanation of the origins of these differences. There was little material inequality in pre-market Maori society, because there were not the technologies to enable it. Europeans brought with them processes which when applied to Maori society developed divergences, both between iwi – because some of which were better located or had more marketable resources – and within iwi – because the rangatira, in particular, were often able to convert their mana into material wealth.

At the point of early contact the well-being of Maori was similar to that of the typical European arrivals (although it is a difficult comparison to make). However Maori did not prosper to the same degree, in part because of the alienation of much of their asset base of land and resources, in part because their traditional practices – collective community effort and horticultural-based farming – did not translate well into the new farming styles, in part because most lived far from where sheep (the basis of the first great staple) thrived. As a rural people they had not the same urban opportunities either.

Rural Maori inequality was compounded by the differences between commercial farming and other enterprises and non-commercial or wage based life with the rangatira more in the first group of farmers and Nga Morehu – the landless – in the second.

The two drivers of urbanisation may have intensified the rural Maori inequalities. Probably rangatira went to the cities for opportunities that the countryside did not offer; some would have left because there was no work on the family farm. The movement of Nga Morehu was more a matter of leaving subsistence lives for the low-paid – but still better – employment opportunities that the cities offered.

There is not much evidence of a subsequent convergence which often follows such transitions. Possibly structural factors impede it; perhaps of the inter-generational cumulative causation kind. The children of poorly educated parents may find it difficult to do better; the children of unemployed parents find it difficult to get a job. (Drug and criminal subcultures reinforce the vicious circle.)

Alternately the convergence is happening, but it is incremental and overlaid with numerous other complications which hide or slow it down. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that just after the rural Maori settled into the cities in the 1970s, attracted by job opportunities, the labour market weakened and unemployment rose. Later the Rogernomics restructuring seems to have hurt Maori more than non-Maori

Various government measures – especially in education and population-based health – are intended to contribute to the convergence but their impact is incremental. It takes over two decades for a successful school program to impact on half the labour force; the effectiveness of public health measures has similarly long lead times.


Belshaw had been gloomy about the prospects of Maori in cities. Getting there had been haphazard. There was no grand plan, no leader – an urban Ngata – to guide them. Nor was there a Wakefield planning settlements or a Vogel assisting immigrants. It was more like the first great Polynesian migration – an unorganised movement of people across a great divide.

We may ponder whether the second great migration was easier than the migration 650 years earlier. To do such an exercise in detail would be futile. The key difference may be that the proto-Maori experienced a hazardous voyage but they brought their culture into a different but hardly hostile environment. Their descendants’ trip, while physically safer, involved a greater cultural challenge; the difference was the new destination was already peopled, and the arrivals had to adapt a lot faster.