This City Eliminated Poverty, And Nearly Everyone Forgot About It
In a December afternoon, Frances Amy Richardson took a break from her quilting class to reflect on a groundbreaking experiment she took part in 40 years earlier.
“Well, that was quite a few years ago,” she said. “There was a lot of people that really benefitted from it.”
Between 1974 and 1979, residents of a small Manitoba city were selected to be subjects in a project that ensured basic annual incomes for everyone. For five years, monthly checks were delivered to the poorest residents of Dauphin, Manitoba –- no strings attached.
And for five years, poverty was completely eliminated.
The program was dubbed “Mincome” -- a neologism of “minimum income” -- and it was the first of its kind in North America. It stood out from similar American projects at the time because it didn’t shut out seniors and the disabled from qualification.
The project’s original intent was to evaluate if giving checks to the working poor, enough to top-up their incomes to a living wage, would kill people’s motivation to work. It didn’t.
But the Conservative government that took power provincially in 1977 -- and federally in 1979 -- had no interest in implementing the project more widely. Researchers were told to pack up the project’s records into 1,800 boxes and place them in storage.
A final report was never released.
Richardson is now 87 and still lives in Dauphin. She says only three or four of the city’s original Mincome recipients remain among the prairie community’s 8,251 residents.
During the program’s heyday in the mid-1970s, Richardson was a mother of six – three of her children lived at home.
To earn money, she ran a small salon out of her home called Fifth Avenue Beauty Chalet. Whatever cash she could make styling hair contributed one stream of the family’s income; her husband Gordon provided the other with his job at the local telephone company.
Her ailing mother also lived in the house at the time. She remembers Mincome researchers visiting the home regularly to calculate how much money the family was qualified for.
“We kept track of everything and somebody would come once a month,” she explained. “I kept track of what I made and they would pay the difference to what they figured that cost many people to live.”
Mincome provided the Richardsons with financial predictability and a sense of stability. There was always food on the table. The bills were paid. The kids stayed in school.
And when Gordon’s health took a turn for the worse mid-way through the pilot project, the family still made ends meet.
“It was a lot of good, but see, the Manitoba government and the federal government both went out of power that year and they ran out of money – so it was just dropped,” Richardson said.
“It was done.”
In five years, Mincome helped one thousand Dauphin families who fell below the poverty line earn a livable income. When the project ended, locals didn’t make a fuss because they knew the checks were temporary anyway.
“Some people thought it was like charity,” Richardson said about Mincome. “It wasn’t really charity, it was need.”
So in 1979, it was business as usual again. After Mincome folded, people tapped into their prairie work ethic and looked to make do however they could. The Richardson family went back to scraping by, the same way they had before the project began. The kids found jobs: one sold gas at the local garage, another landed entry-level work in insurance.
Richardson continued to bake bread and can her own preserves at home. It’s a cash-saving skill born out of hard times some food bank-dependent families have lost today, she suggested.
“I think if we had a Mincome where they were helped a little,” she added. “That might be better.”
Why Dauphin? How did a farming community play host to such a landmark social assistance program?
Good political timing didn’t hurt.
In 1969, the left-leaning provincial NDP led by Edward Schreyer swept into power for the first time. The transition injected new rural sensitivities and democratic socialist influences into politics.
On the federal level, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was prime minister. The two men worked swiftly to set up conditions for a basic income experiment.
In 1973, Manitoba and the federal government signed a cost-sharing agreement: 75 per cent of the $17-million budget would be paid for by the feds; the rest by the province.
The project rolled out the next year.
All Dauphinites were automatically considered for benefits. One-third of residents qualified for Mincome checks.