Economist Evelyn Forget with data from the Dauphin Mincome project. (Photograph by Ken Fisher)

Topics: Ethical Living, June 2024 | Society

This Manitoba city proved that universal basic income changes lives – so why isn’t available for all Canadians?

Cheques from the government helped Dauphin residents push themselves out of poverty


The data for what is sometimes considered one of the most important experiments ever conducted in Canada rested in 1,800 boxes stored in a warehouse in Winnipeg’s North End for about three decades. It was placed there in 1979. And it might have stayed there largely unnoticed for several more decades had it not been for economist and health scientist Evelyn Forget.

Forget, now a professor in the school of medicine at the University of Manitoba, first heard about the data
in 1975 when she was about 19 years old and studying psychology at York University in Toronto. Her economics professor raved about an experiment that preliminary data suggested was actually changing lives for the better, a rarity in such a project. It was one of the longest universal basic income experiments in the world.

Called Manitoba Basic Annual Income Experiment, or Mincome for short, it largely took place in Dauphin, a poor farming community of about 10,000 in western Manitoba known for its sunflowers, -20 Celsius winters and country music festival. The idea for testing universal basic income was in the air in both Canada and the United States at the time. So between 1974 and 1979, the federal and provincial governments, in a cost-sharing agreement, gave every member of the adult population the option of applying for a cheque that varied in amount but was enough to push the poor out of deep poverty. Any participating household in Dauphin got $4,800 in 1975, or just over $25,000 in today’s money.

The impacts were swift and dramatic. Those without dental coverage got their cavities filled; families were able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables; teenagers went back to school and received their high school diplomas instead of working to support their families. “It certainly made people happier,” says Forget. “The people I talked to remember it as a very good time in relation to their community.”

At the time, though, researchers did little further analysis, apart from trying to figure out whether the extra income induced people to quit working and just take the cash. (That was rare.) Instead, the program died in 1979 and the data was shelved.

“Unfortunately, we never got to analyze it,” says Ron Hikel, the political scientist and consultant who ran Mincome. “We were simply told, without analyzing it, to put it in boxes and put a padlock on the door, which is what we did. My emotional reaction was well beyond disappointment.”

So why was the experiment buried? It wasn’t just the cost. The total price tag over five years was initially estimated at $17 million (roughly $65 million in today’s money), and covered people hired to collect and parse the data, including economists, econometricians, statisticians, computer modellers and sample survey staff. The bill was sizable, though not enough to break the bank. But with the oil shocks of the 1970s and stagflation, everyone was tightening their purse strings. The political environment changed later that decade: the provincial election swung from NDP to Conservative, and at the federal level from Liberal to Conservative.

“There were probably some people in the Conservative government who weren’t eager about the data indicating that it worked because that would constitute pressure to actually bring a program into being,” Hikel says. “A lot of them were not enthusiastic about that.”

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Cue Forget, almost 30 years later. Although similar experiments were run in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Indiana, Washington and Colorado, the Manitoba Dauphin universal basic income experiment was unique in its size (the whole town) and its location (the first in Canada). Forget started analyzing the data in 2008 and was able to establish links between relieving poverty and improving mental and physical health across the whole community, including those who didn’t receive the extra income. She was one of the first researchers in the world to do so.

The people of Dauphin didn’t just eat better. Fewer people became depressed and anxious, she found; students stayed in school longer and performed better in their studies; hospital visits fell; there were fewer emergency room visits; rates of psychiatric hospitalization fell.

Today the Mincome experiment is showcased as a success in Dutch television programs, in books from the United Kingdom (Lost Connections by Johann Hari) and the Netherlands (Utopia for Realists: How We can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman), and in Canadian and international political science and economics studies.

It’s worth noting that for most of human civilization, or about 95 percent of our existence, we lived in societies where a type of universal basic income was the norm. The first hunter-gatherer societies, originating in southern Africa 300,000 years ago and spreading to every corner of the globe, were collectivist. The group shared the fruits of the hunt, bound together with kinship and friendship ties.

The strangeness of doing otherwise, such as living in a capitalist society marked by inequality, was documented by early Indigenous writers. Consider, for example, Charles Eastman, first named Ohiyesa, a physician and social reformer born in 1858 to a nomadic Sioux family near what is now Redwood Falls, Minn. He was appalled by the income inequality he saw when he visited South Dakota in 1890.

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“We knew well what it is to endure physical hardship, but our poor lost nothing of their self-respect and dignity. Our great men not only divided their last kettle of food with a neighbor, but if great grief should come to them, such as the death of child or wife, they would voluntarily give away their few possessions and begin life over again in token of their sorrow,” he wrote in From the Deep Woods to Civilization. “We could not conceive of the extremes of luxury and misery existing thus side by side.”

Fifty years after the Dauphin experiment, universal basic income is under consideration once more in Canada. (The Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, known as the Macdonald Commission, proposed a universal income security program in 1985, but that was never put in place.) Buoyed by the success of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) established during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate’s national finance committee is looking into what it calls a “guaranteed livable basic income” proposal.

Outside Canada, former U.S. president Barack Obama, Pope Francis and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are advocating for the concept. Experiments are underway in municipalities in the Netherlands, Spain, California, Brazil and South Korea. Some say this is no longer just an idea, but a movement toward a more just and equitable world.

To Forget, it’s an idea whose time has come. “If I look at Canadian cities, I see the growth of disparities,” she says. “I see the expansion of poverty. Our front-line workers providing social services are being pushed to the limit. They’re burning out very quickly. And so I think people are looking for better ways of addressing poverty, better ways of changing opportunities for people at the lower end of the income distribution. [Universal basic income] does that.”


Alexandra Shimo is a journalist and author in Toronto.

This article first appeared in Broadview’s March 2024 issue with the title “The Dauphin Experiment.”

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