Big Bill was a longtime client and volunteer at Winnipeg Harvest.
He lived in a downtown hotel. He couldn't always use the shower down the hall because it didn't always work. He wore all his clothes all the time, because he knew somebody would steal any he left in his room.
As a result, Big Bill struggled with hygiene and other issues. But he still came to help others at Winnipeg Harvest who were even less fortunate than he was.
Then he changed! His appearance greatly improved. He was clean. He wore a new set of clothes and a new sense of self-esteem. But what had changed?
Bill turned 65. Suddenly, the system that had treated him so badly began to respect him and his income needs as a citizen.
He got access to decent housing and he could afford to buy groceries to cook in his own kitchen.
This proves that when we want, we have the capacity to design and deliver a system that works and values the citizen.
Why can't we do the same every day, for every Canadian?
In the mid-1970s, the people of Dauphin didn't have to go to work. But they did anyway.
That's one of the remarkable findings of a study into the 1974 to 1978 social experiment that provided a guaranteed annual income to every individual and family in the Manitoba town.
The program, known as Mincome, "ensured there would be no poverty in Dauphin. Wages were topped up and the working poor given a boost," Lindor Reynolds wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press three years ago.
Prof. Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba has studied Mincome. Her research confirms that the primary wage earners in Dauphin didn't quit their jobs. People who benefited from the program continued working as school janitors, hair stylists and housekeepers.
But now they had a little extra money to help raise their kids, they told Reynolds.
Forget plotted the hospitalization rate for accidental injuries and mental illness in Dauphin against the average for rural Manitoba hospitals.
Before Mincome, Dauphin was significantly above average in hospital admissions for both accidents and mental illness.
As soon as the experiment began, both rates fell sharply and soon were significantly below average. When Mincome ended, both rates gradually increased, but did not surpass the average.
Forget once told a group of doctors, including the chief public health officer, implementing a guaranteed annual income would save taxpayers' money in the long run, based on reduced hospital admissions alone.
Every day at Winnipeg Harvest, we see the results of people not having enough money to buy the food they and their children need.
When Winnipeg Harvest was invited to speak before a Senate committee in 2008, we proposed a guaranteed annual income as a way to ensure all Canadians have enough to eat.
To promote a greater understanding of the Dauphin experiment, Winnipeg Harvest and Food Matters Manitoba are co-sponsoring a workshop with Forget on Aug. 21. It's time to give guaranteed income another look.
David Northcott is the executive director of Winnipeg Harvest.