Anti-poverty success airbrushed out
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Jan 11 2011. By Carol Goar Editorial Board
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 today’s climate of austerity, no government is likely to embrace a radical poverty reduction strategy. But computerizing the boxloads of archived information in Winnipeg — not a huge expense for a government or public institution — would give scholars and policy-makers insight into what works and what doesn’t in poverty reduction programs.
Here is what Forget’s research has already shown:
• During the GAI experiment, Dauphin had a dramatically lower rate of hospital admissions than similar communities in Manitoba.
• Its high-school dropout rate fell and stayed down for a generation.
• It had fewer accidents, serious injuries, arrests and convictions.
• Consultations for mental illness declined.
• And, contrary to policy-makers’ fears, people in Dauphin did not stop working or reduce their hours to get “free” money from the government.
“In all of the indicators I could find for quality of life, people did better,” Forget says.
But she can’t do a proper cost-benefit analysis. “Someone needs to estimate the savings associated with reduced bureaucracy, better education and health outcomes and probably lower costs associated with crime and special education,” she told The Uniter, a student newspaper at the University of Winnipeg.
She doesn’t know if there were design flaws or delivery problems that reduced the program’s effectiveness. She can’t say how relevant data collected in Dauphin is three decades later in an urbanized, ethnically mixed, post-industrial Canada.
What she does know compels her to dig deeper.
The information is there. If it is digitized, Forget has the tools to analyze it fairly efficiently. If it remains on paper, she fears she’ll die of old age finishing the job.
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