Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dauphin's great experiment

Mincome, nearly forgotten child of the '70s, was a noble experiment

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Dauphin -- Thirty-five years ago, this pretty town surrounded by farm land and far from big cities was the site of a revolutionary social experiment.

For five years, Mincome ensured there would be no poverty in Dauphin. Wages were topped up and the working poor given a boost.

The experiment, a collaboration between Ed Schreyer's provincial NDP and the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, would cost millions before the plug was pulled.

The program saw one-third of Dauphin's poorest families get monthly cheques.

In 1971, at a federal-provincial conference held in Victoria, Manitoba expressed interest in being the testing ground for a guaranteed income project. The Schreyer government applied for funding. In June, 1974, Mincome was approved.

The program quickly grew from modest origins. The NDP thought it would cost slightly more than $500,000 and involve somewhere between 300 and 500 families.

The project ultimately cost more than $17 million and helped 1,000 families.

Cheques were issued based on family size and income. That is, the minimum cheque would presume the recipient had no other source of income. From there, it was scaled back in proportion to the household's earnings, but it did not claw back everything the family earned above the minimum needed to keep body and soul together.

In that way, it differed from standard welfare, or social assistance. And for that reason, it's fondly remembered in the town that tried it, because it rewarded initiative and standing on your own two feet, qualities highly regarded in rural Manitoba, then and now.

The basic minimum income experiment ended when both Schreyer and Trudeau lost power. In the inflationary times of the early eighties and with the installation of Conservative governments in both Manitoba and Canada, Mincome quietly faded away.

No money was spent to study the results of this government-funded utopia.

"Most people have forgotten about it," says Dr. Evelyn Forget, a researcher at the University of Manitoba. "People were very excited about it in the social science community but outside of Dauphin no one really knew about it."

Forget wants to know more. She's getting access to nearly 2000 sealed boxes kept in Winnipeg's National Archives. She hopes to discover what sort of impact Mincome had on Dauphin's residents.

"We already know that hospitalizations went down and people stayed in school longer," she says. "This was a very important social experiment."

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.

The people who lived in Dauphin in the mid-seventies agree.

^^^^

Thirty-five years ago, Hugh and Doreen Henderson stretched each dollar until it snapped. He was a school janitor, she stayed at home with their two kids.

They lived out in the country, raised chickens, grew a lot of their own food and had no money for luxuries.

Mincome was a blessing from above.

"A couple of people came out and talked to us," says Doreen, 70. "We filled out forms, they wanted to see our receipts. We got to keep our family allowance."

It was their children who benefited most.

"You know how kids are," she says. "They like new clothes. They like to have a few extra things."

Hugh, 72, says he regrets not being able to send his children to university. His daughter managed on her own.

"If a kid wants an education and he's willing to pay for it, I think the government should help," he says. "If we'd have had more money, I'd have loved to pay for university for my kids."

Doreen says the government should establish a similar program for seniors and young families.

"Give them enough money to raise their kids. People work hard and it's still not enough," she says. "This isn't welfare. This is making sure kids have enough to eat."

The Hendersons insist Mincome was not a handout. They still worked plenty hard, scrimped and weren't spending money on restaurant meals or fancy clothes.

"They should have kept it," she says. "It made a real difference."

^^^^

Amy Richardson is now 83.

Back in the mid-'70s, she ran the Dauphin Beauty Parlour out of her home. She and her husband Gordon were raising six children.

He worked for the telephone company but health problems led him to retire at 53.

There was only so much money a woman could making setting hair.

"It was kind of a slump at that time," says the widow. "When you have six kids it's hard."

Richardson thinks it was her husband who heard about Mincome and applied.

"It was to bring your income up to where it should be. It was enough to add some cream to the coffee."

The Richardsons used the extra money on things like school books.

"Everybody was the same so there was no shame," she says.

She was old-school, the way people tend to be when they're living in tough times. She baked her own bread, canned vegetables and put up jams. She didn't waste a cent because she didn't have one to waste.

"They really need a school to teach the basics now," she says. "Kids need to learn how to cook, how to do things from scratch. You could live on a lot less."

For the Richardson and their six children, Mincome was a way to afford a few more of the necessities.

^^^^^^

Barbara Livingstone, 83, wanted nothing to do with Mincome.

She moved to Dauphin in 1973, a single mother of one. She was a housekeeper in a personal care home, earning minimum wage and had no interest in government handouts.

"A friend had something to do with it. He asked me some questions and told me I qualified. He urged me to take it. To me it was a form of welfare."

The decision to accept the cheques was hard on her.

"I was raised on a farm. You don't ask for help. It was sort of like in our family it was shameful to ask for help.

"To me when a person's working and making a fair wage they should take care of themselves."

She felt guilty applying for the program.

"Mind you, my friend assured me it wasn't welfare, it was an experiment."

The idea behind the program, she remembers, was to take the money and spend it in the community.

"It was supposed to be a way to kick-start the economy."

She says the money was a bonus but didn't change her life.

"Most of us didn't have anything much but we got by."

^^^

Rick Zaplitny, 63, was already a chartered accountant when Mincome began. He didn't qualify for the program, but he supported the idea.

"We always felt the problem with the welfare system is it was punitive. You made money and they took it away from you.

"It seemed to us that Mincome was for the people who were on that line. They weren't deadbeats. They needed a bit of a boost."

The money wasn't taxable, something Zaplitny thought was a positive move.

"It's the best program of this sort that I've ever seen. I'm guessing that the administration was quite stringent. There was monthly monitoring. It was onerous."

Zaplitny says all that would be easier in the age of computers.

"The concept would work now. I'd be in favor of it. Helping someone have a decent living wage is hard to argue with."

^^^^

As Forget studies the results of the program, she expects to find the benefits of a guaranteed minimum income were far-reaching.

Teenagers stayed in school longer because they didn't have to get jobs to support their families. People could afford medical and dental care. Stress was down because people didn't have to worry about providing for their families.

As Zaplitny says, these people weren't deadbeats.

They were no different that the thousands of people in this province who work and still live at or below the poverty line. They use food banks to supplement what they buy or go hungry so their children can eat.

Mincome did more than top up the income of the poor. It gave them dignity.

Surely that's an idea worth investing in.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

with files from Canwest News Service and Legal Checkpoint

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2009 H1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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