Canada's only experiment in guaranteed income finally gets reckoning
WHITEHORSE, YK—Try to imagine a town where the government paid each of the residents a living income, regardless of who they were and what they did, and a Soviet hamlet in the early 1980s may come to mind.
But this experiment happened much closer to home. For a four-year period in the '70s, the poorest families in Dauphin, Manitoba, were granted a guaranteed minimum income by the federal and provincial governments. Thirty-five years later all that remains of the experiment are 2,000 boxes of documents that have gathered dust in the Canadian archives building in Winnipeg.
Until now little has been known about what unfolded over those four years in the small rural town, since the government locked away the data that had been collected and prevented it from being analyzed.
But after a five year struggle, Evelyn Forget, a professor of health sciences at the University of Manitoba, secured access to those boxes in 2009. Until the data is computerized, any systematic analysis is impossible. Undeterred, Forget has begun to piece together the story by using the census, health records, and the testimony of the program's participants. What is now emerging reveals that the program could have counted many successes.
Beginning in 1974, Pierre Trudeau's Liberals and Manitoba's first elected New Democratic Party government gave money to every person and family in Dauphin who fell below the poverty line. Under the program—called “Mincome”—about 1,000 families received monthly cheques.
Unlike welfare, which only certain individuals qualified for, the guaranteed minimum income project was open to everyone. It was the first—and to this day, only—time that Canada has ever experimented with such an open-door social assistance program.
In today’s conservative political climate, with constant government and media rhetoric about the inefficiency and wastefulness of the welfare state, the Mincome project sounds like nothing short of a fairy tale.
For four years Dauphin was a place where anyone living below the poverty line could receive monthly cheques to boost their income, no questions asked. Single mothers could afford to put their kids through school and low-income families weren't scrambling to pay the rent each month.
For Amy Richardson, it meant she could afford to buy her children books for school. Richardson joined the program in 1977, just after her husband had gone on disability leave from his job. At the time, she was struggling to raise her three youngest children on $1.50 haircuts she gave in her living room beauty parlour.
The $1,200 per year she received in monthly increments was a welcome supplement, in a time when the poverty line was $2,100 a year.
“The extra money meant that I was also able to give my kids something I wouldn't ordinarily be able to, like taking them to a show or some small luxury like that,” said Richardson, now 84, who spoke to The Dominion by phone from Dauphin.
As part of the experiment, an army of researchers were sent to Dauphin to interview the Mincome families. Residents in nearby rural towns who didn't receive Mincome were also surveyed so their statistics could be compared against those from Dauphin. But after the government cut the program in 1978, they simply warehoused the data and never bothered to analyze it.
“When the government introduced the program they really thought it would be a pilot project and that by the end of the decade they would roll this out and everybody would participate,” said Forget. “They thought it would become a universal program. But of course, the idea eventually just died off.”
During the Mincome program, the federal and provincial governments collectively spent $17 million, though it was initially supposed to have cost only a few million.
Meant to last several more years, the program came to a quick halt in 1978 when an economic recession hit Canada. The recession had caused prices to increase 10 per cent each year, so payouts to families under Mincome had increased accordingly.
Trudeau's Liberals, already on the defensive for an overhaul of Canada's employment insurance system, killed the program and withheld any additional money to analyze the data that had been amassed.
“It's hugely unfortunate and typical of the strange ways in which government works that the data was never analyzed,” says Ron Hikel who coordinated the Mincome program. Hikel now works in the United States to promote universal healthcare reform.
“Government officials opposed [to Mincome] didn't want to spend more money to analyze the data and show what they already thought: that it didn't work,” says Hikel, who remains a strong proponent of guaranteed income programs.
“And the people who were in favour of Mincome were worried because if the analysis was done and the data wasn't favourable then they would have just spent another million dollars on analysis and be even more embarrassed.”
But Forget has culled some useful info from Manitoba labour data. Her research confirms numerous positive consequences of the program.
Initially, the Mincome program was conceived as a labour market experiment. The government wanted to know what would happen if everybody in town received a guaranteed income, and specifically, they wanted to know whether people would still work.
It turns out they did.
Only two segments of Dauphin's labour force worked less as a result of Mincome—new mothers and teenagers. Mothers with newborns stopped working because they wanted to stay at home longer with their babies. And teenagers worked less because they weren't under as much pressure to support their families.
The end result was that they spent more time at school and more teenagers graduated. Those who continued to work were given more opportunities to choose what type of work they did.
“People didn't have to take the first job that came along,” says Hikel. “They could wait for something better that suited them.”
For some, it meant the opportunity to land a job to help them get by.
When Doreen and Hugh Henderson arrived in Dauphin in 1970 with their two young children they were broke. Doreen suggested moving from Vancouver to her hometown because she thought her husband would have an easier time finding work there. But when they arrived, things weren't any better.
“My husband didn't have a very good job and I couldn't find work,” she told The Dominion by phone from Dauphin.
It wasn't until 1978, after receiving Mincome payments for two years, that her husband finally landed janitorial work at the local school, a job he kept for 28 years.
“I don't know how we would have lived without [Mincome],” said Doreen.“I don't know if we would have stayed in Dauphin.”
Although the Mincome experiment was intended to provide a body of information to study labour market trends, Forget discovered that Mincome had a significant effect on people's well being. Two years ago, the professor started studying the health records of Dauphin residents to assess the impacts of the program.
In the period that Mincome was administered, hospital visits dropped 8.5 per cent. Fewer people went to the hospital with work-related injuries and there were fewer emergency room visits from car accidents and domestic abuse. There were also far fewer mental health visits.
It's not hard to see why, says Forget.
“When you walk around a hospital, it's pretty clear that a lot of the time what we're treating are the consequences of poverty,” she says.
Give people financial independence and control over their lives and these accidents and illnesses tend to dissipate, says Forget. In today's terms, an 8.5 per cent decrease in hospital visits across Canada would save the government $4 billion annually, by her calculations. And $4 billion is the amount that the federal government is currently trying to save by slashing social programming and arts funding.
Having analyzed the health data, Forget is now working on a cost-benefit analysis to see what a guaranteed income program might save the federal government if it were implemented today. She’s already worked with a Senate committee investigating a guaranteed income program for all low-income Canadians.
The Canadian government's sudden interest in guaranteed income programs doesn't surprise Forget.
Every 10 or 15 years there seems to be a renewed interest in getting Guaranteed Income (GI) programs off the ground, according to Saskatchewan social work professor James Mulvale. He's researched and written extensively about guaranteed income programs and is also part the Canadian chapter of the Basic Income Earth Network, a worldwide organization that advocates for guaranteed income.
GI programs exist in countries like Brazil, Mexico, France and even the state of Alaska.
Although people may not recognize it, subtle forms of guaranteed income already exist in Canada, says Mulvale, pointing to the child benefit tax, guaranteed income for seniors and the modest GST/HST rebate program for low-income earners.
However, a wider-reaching guaranteed income program would go a long way in decreasing poverty, he says.
Mulvale is in favour of a “demo-grant” model of GI that would give automatic cash transfers to everybody in Canada. This kind of plan would also provide the option of taxing higher-income earners at the end of the year so poorer people receive benefits.
A model such as this has a higher chance of broad support because it goes out to everybody, according to Mulvale. GI can also be administered as a negative income tax to the poor, meaning they'd receive an amount of money back directly in proportion to what they make each year.
“GI by itself wouldn't eliminate poverty but it would go a heck of a long way to decrease the extent of poverty in this country,” says Mulvale.
Conservative senator Hugh Segal has been the biggest supporter of this kind of GI, claiming it would eliminate the social assistance programs now administered by the provinces and territories. Rather than having a separate office to administer child tax benefits, welfare, unemployment insurance and income supplement for seniors, they could all be rolled into one GI scheme.
It would also mean that anybody could apply for support. Many people fall through the cracks under the current welfare system, says Forget. Not everybody can access welfare and those who can are penalized for going to school or for working a job since the money they receive from welfare is then clawed back.
If a guaranteed income program can target more people and is more efficient than other social assistance programs, then why doesn't Canada have such a program in place already? Perhaps the biggest barrier is the prevalence of negative stereotypes about poor people.
“There's very strong feelings out there that we shouldn't give people money for nothing,” Mulvale says.
Guaranteed income proponents aren't holding their breaths that they'll see such a program here anytime soon, but they are hopeful that one day Canada will consider the merits of guaranteed income.
The cost would be "not nearly as prohibitive to do as people imagine it is," says Forget. “A guaranteed minimum income program is a superior way of delivering social assistance. The only thing is that it's of course politically difficult to implement.”
Vivian Belik is a freelance journalist based in the frozen northlands of Whitehorse, Yukon. She was, however, raised in Manitoba where she has spotted many of the provinces small-town statues including the giant beaver in Dauphin.