Research Profile – Life in a Town Without Poverty – Research Article of Interest

A research article of interest from the Canadian Institute of Health Research
This is an article that may be of interest to some of our members. It is not related to DISC or SAID.

Research Profile – Life in a Town Without Poverty

Dr. Evelyn Forget
Dr. Evelyn Forget

At a Glance

Who – Dr. Evelyn Forget, a professor of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

Issue – What is the impact of poverty on health?

Approach – Dr. Forget studied the health care use of the citizens of Dauphin, Manitoba who, from 1974 to 1978 were guaranteed freedom from poverty through an annual income supplement.

Impact – Dauphins hospitalization rates fell relative to the control group particularly for mental illness and accidents and injuries.

A new look at a radical experiment in Manitoba 35 years ago shows that guaranteeing people an annual income leads to better health

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Once upon a time in Canada, there was a town where no one was poor.

That might seem like a fairy tale, but it’s an historic fact. From 1974 through 1978, as part of a labour market experiment called MINCOME, all of the almost 13,000 citizens in and around Dauphin, Manitoba were guaranteed annual income support to keep them above the poverty line.

The $17-million experiment was expected to “make an important contribution to the review of Canada’s social security system” according to the press release that preceded its launch. Unfortunately, MINCOME ran into challenges when interest rates soared in the mid-1970s, taking the inflation-adjusted payments along with them. As well, political interest in the concept of guaranteed income waned. As a result, the data collected was never analyzed. Instead, it was warehoused and the radical social experiment was largely forgotten.

Until now.

“I knew about the existence of this old project for a number of years,” says Dr. Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba. “I wondered whether it would be possible to find out what the effects were on health.”

With support from CIHR, Dr. Forget has spent three years comparing the administrative health care records of Dauphin’s citizens between 1974 and 1978 with those of a control group of people living in similar Manitoba communities at that time. She found that people appear to live healthier lives when they don’t have to worry about poverty.

“We found that, overall, hospitalizations in Dauphin declined relative to the control group. We also looked at accidents and injuries and they also declined. You can argue that accident and injury hospitalizations are strongly related to poverty. We have found consistently in other studies that accidents and injuries are strongly related to income level.”

The people of Dauphin also seemed to fare better in terms of mental health.

“During the 1970s we still hospitalized people with mental health issues. If you believe that poverty is related to stress, you should see an effect there. Hospitalizations for mental health issues were down significantly.”

In similar experiments in the United States, researchers claimed to have found that birth rates ballooned. That didn’t happen in Dauphin.

“Politically, there was a concern that if you began a guaranteed annual income, people would stop working and start having large families,” says Dr. Forget, who presented her findings this year at the Institut national d’études démographiques in Paris. “But we found that, if anything, birth rates among the youngest women declined.”

Mr. Ron Hikel, the Executive Director of the MINCOME, is delighted Dr. Forget is taking a fresh look at the project’s impact.

“As somebody who devoted three or four years of his life to making this happen, I was disappointed that the data were warehoused,” says Mr. Hikel. “There was basically no product that could be used in the national policy debate.”

Mr. Hikel, now legislative director for U.S. Congressman Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), says Dr. Forget’s research is immensely relevant in Canada and the United States, where he intends to use her analysis as part of the ongoing health care debate.

“It has to do with the impact that larger social conditions have on one’s health condition and the need for health care.”

The Study

The original MINCOME study took place in Winnipeg and Dauphin, in southeast Manitoba. It received 75% of its funding from the Government of Canada and the balance from the Province of Manitoba.

Participants were guaranteed an annual income. In Winnipeg, participant families were chosen randomly and were compared against other randomly selected “control” residents who did not receive income support. Dauphin, however, was a “saturation site” where all residents and members of the surrounding municipal area were guaranteed income support if their incomes fell below various support rates.

Universal health care arrived in Manitoba in 1970. Using administrative records, Dr. Forget was able to compare health care statistics of the citizens of Dauphin versus residents of similar communities in Manitoba.

Dr. Forget hasn’t yet dipped into the 2,000 boxes of data collected by the original MINCOME researchers, which contain copies of questionnaires participants filled out and, she believes, transcripts of interviews with the families who took part.

“I haven’t yet received approval to look in those boxes, which are held by Archives Canada here in Winnipeg.”

Along with the positive health results, Dr. Forget found that teenagers stayed in school longer, likely because their families were assured of a minimum income.

“Finishing high school in rural Manitoba during that period was not the cultural norm. There were decent jobs around, so a guaranteed income helped some families make the decision to let a potentially employable adolescent stay in school a little longer. The long-term health and social effects would be dramatically different for somebody who went to Grade 12 compared with someone who did not finish high school.”

“I think people living with poverty are living with a great deal of stress. In fact, stress is almost too mild a word for the kind of terror that people live in while trying to care for their children and make good decisions for their children when they don’t have the capacity to enact those decisions.”
— Dr. Evelyn Forget

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