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Families could get $1,000 a month as part of Austin's first guaranteed income program

A paper grocery bag on a table with jars of peanut butter in the background
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The Pease Park Conservancy collects food donations for the Central Texas Food Bank as the number of Texas households experiencing food insecurity has been on the rise. Austin City Council will vote Thursday on a pilot program to send $1,000 a month to 85 families over the next year.

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Government aid programs often come with a laundry list of do-nots. For example, if you receive SNAP benefits, more commonly known as food stamps, you can’t use them to buy to-go food, soap, vitamins or medicine.

So, what if the government stepped back? What if it offered people cash without stipulations?

That’s the question Austin City Council members will consider this Thursday, when they vote on the city’s first universal basic income or guaranteed income program. If approved, the city would send $1,000 a month to 85 families over the next year.

Mayor Steve Adler, who supports the item, said he was initially skeptical of giving families taxpayer money without any direction on how the money should be spent.

“To have a program where you’re actually going to the family and saying, ‘Heck, you might know better than we do,’ is not how government programs are often run,” he said.

As part of budget negotiations last year, council members committed $1.1 million to fund a guaranteed income program. The vote on Thursday is to sign-off on a contract with UpTogether, a California-based nonprofit that would oversee it.

Austin would be committing to run the pilot for only a year.

Brion Oaks, Austin’s chief equity officer, said the city will prioritize giving the money to families who are at risk of losing their homes because they are facing eviction or have been evicted in the past. This comes as residents struggle with a historic rise in housing costs; while the median sales price of a home in Austin recently eclipsed $600,000, the city is also seeing a rapid rise in evictions.

“We want to try to create or develop a selection process to really see how we can help and intervene with families that are facing housing insecurity,” Oaks said.

He said other specifics of who will qualify for the cash still need to be worked out, but that he anticipates the program would begin in late May or June.

If officials sign off on the program, Austin would join at least two dozen other U.S. cities that are trying out or have established guaranteed-income initiatives, including Los Angeles, New Orleans and Santa Fe, N.M.

According to research on some of these programs, recipients spent most of the money on essentials. When the government in Stockton, Calif., began giving more than 100 residents $500 a month, people spent more than a third of that money on food. Recipients also described how this money freed them from stress and other obligations, meaning they had more time to spend with family.

Oaks said the Urban Institute, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C., would study Austin’s one-year pilot. He said the city is curious to see how an influx of cash helps families maintain economic stability before committing to a more permanent iteration of a basic-income program.

In early 2021, UpTogether ran a privately funded basic-income program in Austin. According to council documents, 125 families received $1,000 a month over a year. KUT reached out to the organization to understand the results of that program, but a spokesperson said in an email that they would not comment until the council vote on Thursday.

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