A controversial government experiment in the 1970s in which some households in a Manitoba town were given a minimum level of income improved the community's overall health, a professor at the University of Manitoba says.

From 1974 through 1978, about 30 per cent of the population of Dauphin was provided with a "mincome," as the guaranteed level of income came to be called.

"We found that, overall, hospitalizations in Dauphin declined relative to the control group," said Evelyn Forget, professor of community health science at the University of Manitoba. 

"We also looked at accidents and injuries, and they also declined. You can argue that accident and injury hospitalizations are strongly related to poverty."

The goal of the program, which cost $17 million, was to find out whether a guaranteed income would improve health and community life. If a household's income dropped below a certain amount, the program would top it up to an income equivalent to the welfare rates at the time.

'Hospitalizations for mental health issues were down significantly.' — Evelyn Forget, researcher

The participants who worked had their supplement reduced 50 cents for every dollar they earned in an attempt to encourage people in the program to look for work.

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 said her research suggests that people appear to live healthier lives when they don't have to worry about poverty.

"Hospitalizations for mental health issues were down significantly," she said, adding that teenagers stayed in school longer as a result of the initiative.

The initiative, which started in 1974, was terminated in 1978 as political support for the experiment faded.

"Politically, there was a concern that if you began a guaranteed annual income, people would stop working and start having large families," Forget said.

Ron Hikel, the executive director of the Mincome project, is delighted Forget is taking a fresh look at the project's impact.

'Politically, there was a concern that if you began a guaranteed annual income, people would stop working and start having large families.' — Evelyn Forget, researcher

"As somebody who devoted three or four years of his life to making this happen, I was disappointed that the data were warehoused," Hikel said.

Forget has not yet been given access to 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.

Hikel, who is now legislative director for U.S. Rep. Eric Massa, said Forget's research is immensely relevant in Canada and the United States. He said he intends to use her analysis as part of the current 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," Hikel said.