The Manitoba Mincome Study

October 8, 09

Earlier this month BIEN Canada held a meetup in Ottawa to discuss developments and keep everyone up to date on progress toward a Guaranteed Annual Income in Canada. One well received presentation was from Evelyn Forget on her study of the Manitoba Mincome Experiment, which has become a part of the lore of Guaranteed Income activists in Canada.

The Ottawa meeting decided to refer to the concept of eliminating poverty by giving everyone enough money to look after their needs, as a Guaranteed Annual Income. This is what it is most often known by these days, although every group seems to have its own preferred term. In the 1970s it was called 'Mincome' and the favored way of administering it was by a Negative Income Tax (NIT) , a tax refund to anyone whose income fell below a cut off line, to bring it back above the line.

It is hard to believe in these times of reduced social programs and blaming the victims, but in the 1970s the American government almost adopted a Guaranteed Annual Income. There were several studies made in the United States in which a randomly selected group of people in a specific area were given a Negative Income Tax for a period of time.

Different groups got slightly different plans to test their responses to them. Some got higher or lower cutoffs, some got larger or smaller child allowances, and so on. The American studies were called RIME, SIME, and DIME; Rural Income Maintenance Experiment, Seattle Income Maintenance Experiment, and Denver Income Maintenance Experiment. Of course there were control groups who got no NIT, for comparison.

In response to this, the Canadian government held its own study. The residents of Dauphin, Manitoba and surroundings, were chosen to be the guinea pigs. The experiment ran from 1974 to 1978. By then the Guaranteed Income Movement in the United States, begun by president Johnson as part of the 'war on poverty' program, and pursued by Nixon and Ford, was finally defeated despite Carter's efforts.

So, the Canadian government also lost interest. The Mincome study was cancelled and air-brushed out of history; no final report was ever issued. However, interest slowly grew about it. The executive director, Douglas Hum, is still a professor at the University of Manitoba and he published a summary of the study in the mid nineties.

we did not forget

Evelyn Forget is a Franco-Manitoban who is also a professor at the University of Manitoba. She decided to try and do a study of the Manitoba Mincome study but ran into many obstacles.

They would not let her look up the original participants in the study. She had trouble finding the data. It turned out to be sitting in 1800 boxes in a warehouse in Winnipeg.

It had never been digitalized so that it could be worked on with modern computerized statistical techniques. She could not get funding to have that done and she thought she would die of old age before she could finish it herself.

So she tried a different approach. She looked at census and other information for Dauphin at the same time as the mincome program. She has discovered a lot.

Kids stayed in school longer in Dauphin in 1974-78 than before or after. Hospital admissions dropped for Dauphin against her control group and regressed after 1978.

Data about fertility and divorce were less clear. Dauphin was and is a very rural, conservative, religious community. It is a four hour drive from Winnipeg.

Evelyn says that when you drive into the town, the Catholic church is on one side and the Ukrainian Orthodox church is on the other side. Four fifths of the people attend one or the other. The people mainly descend from the Ukrainian immigrants of the early twentieth century.

During the study, the divorce rate did not change at all and the pregnancy rate declined. But the Mincome was paid to families, not individuals.

This is in contrast to the U.S. studies at the same time, in which the birth rate and the divorce rate were reported to rise. This is one of the things which turned conservative Americans against a Guaranteed Income in the 1970s. However, closer study of the data there showed that this was not true.

Forget says the flaws in the study were; there was limited funding for it. It was run by labor economists who were only interested in labor market effects and considered social impacts to be 'peripheral'. One interesting thing about the Dauphin experiment was that many people refused to participate in the study because it did not pay enough.

digging deeper

Forget found a broader effect on society than merely those receiving the money. When she started tracking the next generation descendants of those who had lived in Dauphin at the time of the study, they also did better than the controls. She thinks those getting the income could keep their kids in school longer, and this convinced other kids to stay longer, and that education was a 'transmitter' of prosperity to the next generation.

It has become harder to track the effects of the experiment as we get closer to the present. People have been gradually moving away from Dauphin. But what she has found so far confirms the findings of the American studies.

We now also have the BIGNAM experiment. This is taking place in the African country of Namibia; Basic Income Grant NAMibia.

The most important finding in all these studies was that when people had the grants, they worked more, not less, and they made more money. They could refuse sub standard employment and decide for themselves the most productive use of their time. As well, all social indicators are more positive; school attendance, divorce rates, crime rates, alcoholism; the effects rub off on people who are not even getting the income.

What seems to turn conservatives off the concept is that it reduces social control. Americans were concerned that women might leave their husbands in large numbers. In Namibia, the local ranchers have been campaigning against BIGNAM because it forces them to pay their workers more.

The Guaranteed income experiments of the 1970s are all dated now. Society and the economy have changed in many ways. An increase in the divorce rate would no longer considered such a problem.

As well, society is coming to see the problem as not, how to get people working more, but on how to get people working less. People now work so hard they are damaging their health, yet they are earning less all the time. We are producing so much it is depleting the natural environment.

Poverty elimination activists have moved away from the NIT model and want to see a flat grant system such as BIGNAM. They want to see it go to individuals, and not to family units, to increase women's independence.

Yet we still need the evidence that studies such as Manitoba Mincome clearly give; that even a small Guaranteed Income has dramatic positive effects on society. And it is about social effects, not 'labor market' effects.

We urged Evelyn to complete her study of the study, and assured her that we will not Forget about her.