Austin's guaranteed basic income pilot program was a hit. A GOP state senator doesn't want it to happen in Houston

A new report from the Urban Institute once again busts tired and false myths and stereotypes about public assistance. The new report presents results from a guaranteed basic income pilot program that was run by the city of Austin, Texas in partnership with non-profit organization UpTogether and ten other community-based partners. The program provided $1000 per month for a year to 135 households and ran from September 2022 to August 2023. According to Business Insider, the City of Austin funded 85 families and philanthropic donations funded the remaining 50 households. The Urban Institute provides some highlights of their findings:

The Austin Guaranteed Income Pilot tests how direct cash might help individuals and families with low incomes weather their unstable housing circumstances in some of the highest-poverty and most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Austin, Texas. . . 

Respondents reported spending most of their pilot cash on housing and said their housing security improved substantially. . . 

Employment remained relatively stable throughout the pilot. Of the 9 percent of participants who reported reducing their working hours, half stated that they used the time to "skill up" for future work and half took on caretaking responsibilities. . . 

Food security improved steadily over the course of the pilot, but some mental health measures reverted to enrollment levels; on one metric (constant worry), participants reported worse outcomes at the end of the 12- month period. 

Business Insider provides more details:

On average, program participants spent more than half of the cash they received on housing, the report's authors wrote.

After the yearlong program, the participants were "substantially more housing secure" than when they enrolled, while other Texas residents with low incomes became "modestly less housing secure" over the same period, the authors found. 

The program also helped reduce food insecurity among participants — 17% fewer families were unable to afford a balanced meal, the report says.

Despite the success of the program, at least one Texas State Senator is big mad. Paul Bettencourt, who represents District 7, which includes West Harris County and much of the city of Houston, sent a letter dated January 12, 2024 to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. In the letter, Bettencourt requests "a legal opinion regarding guaranteed income programs." Bettencourt mentions the Austin program and also references a new program called "UpLift Harris" that focuses on Harris County.

UpLift Harris will provide participating households $500 per month for 18 months. The program provides this description on the Harris County website:

Uplift Harris is a guaranteed income pilot that allows participating households to receive $500 per month for 18 months. Similar programs across the country have shown that direct cash assistance programs deliver wide-ranging social and financial benefits for participating families and the broader community

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified many long-standing health and economic inequities in the community. In response, Harris County is investing $20.5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address economic inequity and reduce poverty. Uplift Harris, the county's first guaranteed income program, will distribute $500 per month for 18 months to eligible households.

The pilot will serve residents of two cohorts. The first cohort includes residents who live within the top 10 high-poverty zip codes in Harris County. The second cohort includes priority populations under ACCESS, a coordinated and client-centered safety net service delivery model administered by Harris County Public Health. Participants of both cohorts will be randomly selected through a lottery process. Through initiatives like Uplift Harris, Harris County is committed to creating positive, lasting change in our community by addressing economic disparities and supporting those most in need.

The program began accepting applications on January 12, and will continue to do so through February 2, 2024. The response has been overwhelming, suggesting a strong need for this program. Despite the need, and the clear evidence that universal basic income programs are "working nearly universally," State Senator Paul Bettencourt is opposed to them and is challenging their constitutionality in the state of Texas. In his letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Bettencourt writes:

I respectfully request an Attorney General Opinion in regards to the following questions: 

Do counties have the authority to enact a guaranteed income program?

Would such a policy violate the gift prohibition clause in the Texas Constitution? 

Business Insider reports that the program's attorney fully defends Uplift Harris against Bettencourt's claims:

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday that Bettencourt is attacking a program meant to help people in poverty and that his office will defend itself against the senator's legal claims.

"He's more focused on political games and weaponizing government institutions than making life better for the people of Harris County," Menefee told the outlet. "The county's program is legal and we will make that clear to the Attorney General."

To learn more, here's the full report from the Urban Institute.