Manitoba’s Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) program is often criticized, and rightfully so.
Because EIA recipients must meet a host of requirements in order to be approved for income assistance, an extensive team of social workers and bureaucrats must be employed to monitor the system, which is costly, unnecessary and inefficient.
EIA is also ineffective as a safety net for low-income households because it does not provide sufficient income assistance for recipients to have all their basic needs met.
Additionally, recipients are often immediately cut off from assistance when they find employment, even if it will take some time yet for them to become self-sufficient; they are also often cut off from assistance because they have chosen to go back to school and have stopped constantly searching for employment.
It is demeaning and demoralizing that our system treats low-income individuals with constant suspicion and keeps them in a state of uncertainty regarding their finances while studies show that the vast majority of income assistance recipients spend their money on the basics like food, clothing and rent, with instances of welfare fraud being rare.
Clearly, Manitoba’s EIA program is in need of drastic restructuring.
However, there is a viable alternative to this system.
In fact, a little-known Manitoban experiment in the 1970s demonstrated that the solution to the social assistance dilemma is remarkably simple.
It’s called a basic income guarantee, a system in which a minimum annual income is set for all citizens, and if an individual does not earn that minimum annual income, the difference is supplemented by the government, no questions asked.
Factors like employment or marital status are not considered; the system is open to anyone. Those of the right wing may balk at the idea of redistributing tax dollars to the poor with no strings attached, but the social benefits of such a policy would be profound.
From 1974 to 1979, the town of Dauphin, Man. participated in a basic annual income experiment funded by the NDP government provincially and Trudeau’s Liberals at the federal level.
The project was called “Mincome,” and in the town of about 10,000 residents, roughly 1,000 residents received income assistance during the experiment.
The minimum annual income was set at approximately $18,000 in today’s dollars. The goal of the experiment was to determine the social consequences of a basic income guarantee; specifically, to determine whether it would mean recipients would stop working.
Researchers found that only two demographics worked slightly less: single mothers, who were able to spend more time at home with their babies, and teenagers who were under less pressure to support their families and as a result spent more time in school, graduating more frequently.
Another positive effect of the Mincome project was that during those four years, hospital visits in Dauphin decreased by 8.5 per cent.
This is not surprising given the direct correlation between poverty and illness.
Fewer people were seeking medical attention for work-related injuries, domestic violence and mental health issues. An 8.5 percent decrease in hospital visits throughout Canada would save the federal government approximately $4 billion annually.
Unfortunately, the experiment was not expanded into province-wide legislation, due to an upcoming election and a fear of losing votes.
In Manitoba, a basic income guarantee would benefit the First Nations community, whose members comprise a disproportionate percentage of the population living in poverty.
For example, in the Lord Selkirk neighbourhood of Winnipeg, where two thirds of residents are aboriginal, 68 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. More than a third of residents are nine years old or younger.
A basic income guarantee would free the First Nations community from the cycle of poverty and, despite right-wing rhetoric that would have the public believe that better social security results in less workers and more laziness, this efficient and effective system would give low-income individuals the opportunity to one day achieve self-sufficiency and economic independence.
No one should ever have to choose between paying rent and buying groceries.
Canada is a country of plenty and the fact that 12,5000 Manitobans as well as 1 in 5 Manitoban children still live in poverty is unacceptable.
That’s why with a newly elected NDP majority poised to make real change, it’s time for our provincial government to put people before politics and introduce universal basic income guarantee legislation in Manitoba.
Katerina Tefft is a politics student at the University of Winnipeg.
Published in Volume 66, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 9, 2011)