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Austin approves pilot program to provide guaranteed income to families in need

The front of Austin City Hall
Gabriel C. Pérez

Lee esta historia en español.

Austin City Council approved a taxpayer-funded pilot program to give selected families and individuals $1,000 a month for an entire year — with no strings attached.

The city is partnering with the California-based nonprofit UpTogether to distribute over $1.18 million to 85 families and individuals struggling to make ends meet. The goal of the guaranteed-income program would be to help with utility payments, rent, child care or other out-of-reach necessities.

The city's Equity Office and the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, will study the program’s effectiveness. After the yearlong pilot, the city could continue the program.

A vote on the measure was delayed late last month after legal and financial concerns were raised. Opponents argued the program's lack of specificity on what participants could spend money on was fiscally questionable — and that it wasn’t legal under state law.

So council went back to the drawing board.

The Equity Office this week proposed some guardrails for the program, namely narrowing down who would qualify. Recipients would have show they're in danger of eviction, they've struggled to pay utility bills or they qualify for supportive housing reserved for people transitioning out of homelessness.

Ahead of the vote, Austin Mayor Steve Adler pushed back on the assertion that the program was a "giveaway," arguing instead that Austinites should view it as "an investment."

He also said the program would focus more squarely on preventing homelessness, citing Austin's skyrocketing housing costs and perennial issues surrounding affordability. He said the program would provide households with more flexibility than other social service programs with stricter rules around spending.

Adler also pushed back on arguments that the lack of spending guidelines could lead to misspent taxpayer dollars.

"I am discouraged by the rhetoric that this is a giveaway," he said. "I just think that's so misleading and so wrong and demonstrates a lack of understanding."

Though the measure passed, District 10 Council Member Alison Alter expressed some opposition. She said she understands the need for the program, but that the city should focus on basic living wages. Austin is currently locked in tense labor negotiations with first-responders and struggling to staff lifeguard positions.

"It's not a decision that I'm taking lightly," she said. "I believe that we do need to invest in people and their basic needs, but I'm not sure that this is the right way today, given where we are at this time."

District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who expressed reservations about the program last month and pushed for the delay on its approval, was not present at Thursday's meeting; neither was District 7's Leslie Pool.

UpTogether recently concluded a similar, privately funded pilot on guaranteed income. It was used to administer the city's COVID relief program, as well.

In a news conference ahead of the vote, Ivanna Neri, partnership director for UpTogether, said the preliminary results from the privately funded pilot showed that all of the 125 participants spent their stipends on necessities.

“Every single person used the money to pay for their basic needs, including rent, mortgage, groceries, clothes, gas — things all of us need,” she said.

Neri added that the program also allowed people to save and pay down their debt. More than half of the 125 participants were able to pay down three-quarters of their debt, she said, while a third paid off their debt entirely.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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