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A new Houston-area basic income program sending out $500 a month to residents with no strings attached had an acceptance rate lower than Harvard or Yale

Noah Sheidlower   

A new Houston-area basic income program sending out $500 a month to residents with no strings attached had an acceptance rate lower than Harvard or Yale
  • Uplift Harris, a guaranteed income program in Texas, accepted just over 2% of applicants.
  • The program gives $500 each month for 18 months to 1,928 low-income households in the Houston area.

Just over 2% of applicants to a Houston-area guaranteed income program were accepted — a lower acceptance rate than Harvard or Yale.

Starting this month, 1,928 families will receive $500 a month, no strings attached, through Uplift Harris, a guaranteed income program in the Texas county that includes Houston. Over 82,000 people applied to the program, which lasts 18 months, and applicants were alerted of their acceptance status starting on March 22.

"A really key thing that distinguishes these programs and really works is that it's unconditional cash, so we don't tell people that they have to spend the money on anything particular, and we don't put conditions on it," said Dustin Palmer, US country director at GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that's administering the program with tech partner AidKit. "We really trust people to do what they need with the cash to get on their feet."

Participants were randomly selected via a lottery with no candidate ranking. Some people were also selected to be in a comparison group in which they take surveys and participate in research but don't receive cash aid.

Palmer said GiveDirectly worked with Harris County to determine a "really meaningful amount of money" distributed to each participant without jeopardizing other benefits they may be receiving. Palmer said distributing less money to more participants may not have the same impact as other successful pilots nationwide.

A majority of participants selected live in high-poverty ZIP codes and have a household income below 200% of the federal poverty line. Some participants were selected through the county's Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self Sufficiency program which helps vulnerable residents improve outcomes.

"This is a type of support not available to this magnitude within the wider US safety net," Palmer said. "The interest comes from people's expression of themselves imagining what they could do with this money to fit their unique needs."

Over 16% of Harris County residents live in poverty, BI previously reported, a statistic exacerbated by the pandemic. While over 80,000 applicants did not receive payments, those who did were overjoyed, Palmer said. He said most of the people he helped onboard expressed excitement at essentially "winning the lottery," and two danced when they went to their appointment.

"We've had folks who are in really unstable housing situations who want to use the money to get stability, and we know from a lot of research that people use the money for rent, which is a major expense for folks," Palmer said. "They're excited for that stability. We had a person tell us they want to buy supplies to turn their truck into a food truck, so you see that entrepreneurship opportunity angle."

He said the program has enrolled young parents looking to raise their kids without as much financial burden, grandparents wanting to support their children, and mid-career workers looking to put in fewer hours. He said participants expressed feeling like their dreams and aspirations are more attainable.

Palmer said thousands applied due to the program's flexibility, which differs from some other benefits that either give too little money for it to make a difference or limit spending for certain items.

The program's $20.5 million in funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, which assisted in pandemic-era recovery efforts. For many participants, the payments are essential to their survival, especially after the end of pandemic-era aid programs like rental assistance or extra unemployment insurance.

Still, Palmer acknowledged the program can only expand depending on funding availability, meaning only a small group can receive these benefits for now. Palmer said that some public officials in the county have been optimistic about continuing this program in future years.

"For some of the more typical supports that have been around for a long time like SNAP or Medicaid, there are really long processing times right now, and there's a ton of administrative burden to access that," Palmer said. "We just saw the largest one-year increase in poverty ever recorded in the US."

The pilot has been met with opposition from politicians including Texas State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who in January sent a letter to the state attorney general concerning whether counties can legally enact guaranteed income programs. Bettencourt represents Senate District 7, encompassing most of West Harris County.

"They are not a Home Rule city," Bettencourt told Houston Public Media. "They cannot create new law themselves. And I don't see anywhere since I've been in office that the state has granted them authority to have a program like Uplift Harris."

Still, Texas cities have launched other basic income pilots with promising results, such as the Austin Guaranteed Income Pilot serving 135 low-income families, who each received $1,000 monthly. Participants reported spending most of their money on housing, food, and other daily costs.

"We really encourage cities and government policymakers to think about this as the early stages of understanding what works best," Palmer said, adding that many pilots nationwide are experimenting with different formats. He said cities have been looking into various new tax revenue streams that could contribute to the growth of these pilots.

"We always say cash assistance, unconditional cash, is the best-studied intervention internationally, and it's really effective," Palmer said. "People trust what the research says, and I feel really optimistic."

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