By Carol Goar, Toronto Star, January 11, 2011
Sitting tantalizingly in a warehouse in Winnipeg are 2,000 boxes of information about one of the most fascinating social policy experiments in Canadian history.
Evelyn Forget, a professor of health sciences at the University of Manitoba, fought for five years to get access to those boxes, owned by Archives Canada. She finally succeeded in 2009, but the bulging files — statistics, completed questionnaires, interview transcripts, all on paper — overwhelmed her. “Until it is computerized, analyzing the data in a systematic way would be incredibly expensive,” she says.
Nevertheless, she has been able to piece together part of the story, using the census, public health insurance records and the recollections of researchers and participants.
The experiment began in 1974. It was designed to test the concept of a guaranteed annual income in a small, fairly typical, community. Dauphin, a rural municipality of 13,000 midway between Winnipeg and Regina, was chosen at the behest of former Manitoba premier Ed Schreyer.
The city’s low-income residents were lifted and kept out of poverty, using a negative income tax. (Canada Revenue Agency topped up their income if it fell below the poverty line.) They could use the money as they chose.
The initiative was called “mincome.” It was billed as an “important contribution to the review of Canada’s social security system.” It cost Ottawa $12.8 million and Manitoba $4.2 million.
It ended prematurely. In 1978, Ottawa pulled the plug when the economy slumped, unemployment and inflation climbed and public interest in welfare reform plummeted.
The findings were never analyzed. No report was ever written.
But the concept of a guaranteed annual income (GAI) refused to die. The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada (the same blue-chip panel that called for a free-trade agreement between Canada and the United States) recommended a “universal income security program” in 1985. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien toyed with the idea in 2001 as a part of his government’s “war on poverty.” Conservative Senator Hugh Segal is still convinced it is the right way to go.
In 1974, the world an Canada were very different from today. There was a different spirit, a kind of wonder and awe, amid the rising spectre of inflation spread by spikes in oil prices, a kind of expanded consciousness even among the political class in this country. Clearly Premier Ed Shreyer and Pierre Trudeau were among the more socially conscious and political conscientious of the political leaders at the time.
Of course, there were voices that would probably have dubbed this experiment "socialism" or worse, as "communism" and there are clearly reasons why those boxes of files and questionnaires have been kept sealed for the last 35 years.
In today's political climate, which to this observer seems much more 'survival of the fittest' as the hand of the public purse is grasping for more revenue and not looking at ways to support the weakest among us, the cause of the poor, and the symptoms of poverty seem to be shoved to the back pages of both our papers, and our minds.
There is a new depth to which governments have fallen, in their cash grasp, when they now rely on gambling for substantial portions of their revenues. Oh, we keep a public face of sanctimony on the country. I have not heard of a government of Canada sponsored lottery or casino, but certainly all the provinces and most of the U.S. states have entered the gambling arena in a blatant "tax-on-the-poor" cash grab. And surely this amounts to nothing more or less than politicians refusing to be associated with tax increases, because such association would lead inevitably to being 'terminated' as redundant by the voters.
Let's hope that these files and the information in these boxes renews the debate for government to change its perspective on social assistance, and reconsider the implementation of a Guaranteed Annual Income in some form.