Saturday, November 14, 2009

A small community that once received guaranteed income

An almost forgotten experiment proved just how much a decent income can help people's health and education. A small community in Manitoba, Canada participated in a study back in the mid-70's where every person in the town received a living wage for five years. During those years, the student in the community stayed in school longer, and the residents rarely ever had to rely on Canada's health system.

From The Vancouver Sun, writer Norma Greenaway helped to unearth the almost forgotten study.

"Once upon a time in Canada, there was a town where no one was poor."

No, this is not the opening line of some yet to be written fairy tale. It's the opening line in the summary of a new report that contains some heartening news buried in a long ago and mostly forgotten experiment that ensured all residents in a small Manitoba community were guaranteed a minimum annual income for five years in the mid-1970s.

With Canada awash in flu fears, corporate bankruptcies, rising joblessness and pension woes, the gradual unearthing of a tiny piece of 'utopian' history seems a timely reminder of the benefits of daring to dream.

So far, researcher Evelyn Forget has discovered that from 1974 through 1978, the residents of Dauphin were less likely to draw on the medical system than a control group elsewhere in the province. Dauphin's young people also stayed in high school longer. Within years of the experiment shutting down, those trend lines disappeared, Forget says.

Forget is banking on learning more about what was known as the MINCOME experiment once she gets access to about 1,800 sealed boxes, which, among other things, are jammed with personal surveys of Dauphin residents who lived the experiment.

While it lasted, about one-third of Dauphin's 10,000 poor residents got monthly cheques to boost their incomes.

The actual dollar figures from the period seem shockingly small in today's world. The formula for the guaranteed minimum income translated into incomes in 1974, for example, that ranged from $1,255 for a single person to about $4,000 for families of four or five people.

The program's costs ballooned as the 1970s progressed and inflation took off, spurred in particular by skyrocketing oil prices at the time.

Though there remains much to learn from the little-studied experiment, Forget says she's increasingly persuaded a guaranteed minimum income is a "more reasonable, more just, more efficient and cheaper way" of eliminating poverty than the current system of targeted support

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