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Canada’s forgotten universal basic income experiment

But when the experiment ended in 1979, the improvements which had been seen in health and education soon returned to how things had been in 1974. Taylor remembers how many of the small businesses that had sprung up over the preceding four years began to vanish. Her husband was forced to close their shop, and the couple soon left Dauphin for good.

“After the programme ended, we moved to Ontario in 1980 because there was nothing to stay for anymore,” she says. “It just wasn’t doing very well.” 

And, so, Dauphin faded back into anonymity – until now. Forget’s persistence in bringing the findings of Mincome to light has led both policy makers and academics around the world to revisit this long-forgotten experiment, as they ponder whether such a scheme could ever be viable on a much larger scale.

Can basic income work across a whole country?

Proponents of a nationwide basic income scheme have argued that a system similar to Mincome, in which those earning less than a certain threshold receive top-up payments, are a necessary complement to the existing benefits system in order to reduce poverty. They feel that the stringent requirements attached to welfare programmes means that on their own, they provide insufficient support.

However, critics point to the huge administrative costs associated with providing a population-wide basic income, potentially supporting several million individuals. After all, just 2,128 people in total were involved in the Mincome experiment.

In 2017, Luke Martinelli, an economist at the University of Bath, attempted to model how much such a scheme may cost the UK, with the cheapest estimate coming to £140 billion per year – on top of the existing welfare state costs. Critics have stated that no trial conducted so far has provided any indication of whether governments could afford such a large-scale programme, nor whether citizens would be willing to accept the higher levels of taxation needed to fund it.

One of the things we do know from the Mincome experiment is that basic income does not appear to discourage the recipients from working – one of the major concerns politicians have always held about such schemes. Forget found that employment rates in Dauphin stayed the same throughout the four years of Mincome, while a recent trial in Finland – which provided more than 2,000 unemployment people with a monthly basic income of 560 euros ($630, £596) from 2017 to 2019 – found that this helped many of them to find work which provided greater economic security.

“They recently released the final results, which showed the nature of the jobs that people got once they received a basic income was changing,” says Forget. “So instead of taking on precarious part-time work, they were much more likely to be moving into full-time jobs that would make them more independent. I see that as a great success.”

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