"Once upon a time in Canada, there was a town where no one was poor." So begins a 2009 report by Dr. Evelyn Forget who assessed the effects on health of a guaranteed annual income for the town.
That might seem like a fairy tale, but it's an historic fact. And an extraordinary episode in Canadian history. From 1974 through 1978, as part of a labour market experiment called MINCOME, all of the almost 13,000 citizens in and around Dauphin, Manitoba were guaranteed annual income support to keep them above the poverty line. Not everyone claimed MINCOME The federal government covered 75% of the costs and the Province of Manitoba under Premier Ed Schreyer, the rest.
As I mentioned in my blog-essay on the late Fred MacKinnon former Deputy Minister of Welfare in Nova Scotia, he regretted the lost opportunity to turn this Manitoba demonstration project into a national program of Guaranteed Annual Income. They waited too long and interest rates began to rise dramatically taking the income adjusted MINCOME payments along with them. Then the federal government under Pierre Trudeau lost political interest in the concept of a guaranteed income despite the best efforts of his health Minister Marc Lalonde.
Dr. Forget's initial report describes how it worked:
“the Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) was conceived as an insurance policy. In the same way that people who buy fire insurance on their houses perceive the policy to be beneficial even if they never collect, the GAI benefited everyone in Dauphin, including families that never collected payments under the scheme. The benefit to those who did collect payments is obvious, but those whose incomes exceeded the threshold and therefore did not qualify still benefited from the reduction of risk. Because this is an agricultural community… few people knew in advance whether they would qualify or not. The health and social benefits, including the willingness to allow potentially useful adolescent children to stay in school rather than encouraging them to work, are dependent on perceived risk and not directly on whether the family qualified for support after the fact.”
Alas, this radical social experiment was largely forgotten for over three decades. The data was collected and warehoused but never analyzed. Until Dr. Forget of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, came along. She compared the administrative health care records of Dauphin's citizens between 1974 and 1978 with those of a control group of people living in similar Manitoba communities at that time.
She found that people appear to live healthier lives when they don't have to worry about poverty. Here are some of her findings:
- Hospitalizations, accidents and injuries declined in Dauphin compared to the control group
- Hospitalizations were down significantly for mental health issues – significant if you believe poverty is related to stress.
- Birth rates among young women also declined. There had been a political concern the people would stop working and start having large families. "But we found that, if anything, birth rates among the youngest women declined." Dr. Forget observed.
- Along with the positive health results, Dr. Forget found that teenagers stayed in school longer, likely because their families were assured of a minimum income. At the time finishing high school was not the cultural norm in rural Manitoba. During the experiment years, education enrolment in Dauphin surged compared to other areas of the province.
Dauphin may have been a town where no one was poor. Thankfully, it would have become a town that everyone forgot if it weren't for Dr. Forget.
Forget believes a guaranteed minimum income is a good idea, one that gives money directly to those who need it instead of funneling the cash through top-heavy social programs. Her conclusion is worth remembering as we look once again at how best to eliminate poverty and Hugh Segal's call for a national guaranteed annual income.
"I think people living with poverty are living with a great deal of stress. In fact, stress is almost too mild a word for the kind of terror that people live in while trying to care for their children and make good decisions for their children when they don't have the capacity to enact those decisions." Dr. Forget
This is the third in a series on poverty. Click Poverty to access the others.
Click here for a Winnipeg Free Press story on four families who lived in Dauphin during this bold experiment.