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Questions linger on both sides of $1.1M guaranteed income pilot program

Thursday, August 19, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Initial details of the city’s forthcoming pilot program to provide guaranteed income assistance to vulnerable families are expected to emerge later this fall, with just over 100 households expected to receive around $1,000 per month.

A spokesperson for the city’s Equity Office said information about the program, which City Council budgeted at $1.1 million, is due by early to mid-October. The program was approved as part of the adoption of the city’s next budget. A planned $250,000 study of guaranteed income programs in other cities was replaced in a move city staffers felt was justified, based on data from existing programs in more than a dozen cities across the country.

Brion Oaks, head of the Equity Office, will lead the design and execution of the pilot program that will in some ways build on an ongoing income assistance program that was led by local nonprofit groups, including UpTogether.

Oaks said staff will look at how to add families in different ZIP codes than those focused on by the current program and examine how other city services can be combined with the direct payments to increase the positive impact on recipients.

“This influx of monthly income into a family allows that family to free up other resources so they can make investments in other areas to increase their economic mobility,” he said, referring to successful programs across the country.

“In Stockton (California) they found that the stipend could free you up from having to work multiple part-time jobs or gig work you would have to do to get to (the equivalent of) a full-time, high-paying position, or to free up the time to go to a job certification program, take coursework in school and elevate yourself … so the family can be better off overall.”

Council members voted to approve the budget amendment to create the program. The only vote against came from Council Member Leslie Pool, who questioned Oaks on the staff decision to forgo the approved study and proceed with the pilot program instead.

She said proposals for a federal income program would create a more uniform system, and questioned whether the city would be able to afford ongoing assistance to a large number of vulnerable residents.

“I remain fully supportive of a federal guaranteed income program; I see it as a natural extension of public support programs that have assisted people since Frances Perkins brought the Social Security initiative forward as FDR’s Secretary of Labor more than 85 years ago. I am intrigued by how we can use a local pilot to push for a more robust economic safety net, which is why I am so interested in seeing the outlines of the pilot,” Pool wrote to the Austin Monitor.

“I do have a lot of questions about how to sustain a program like this over time. The city is looking at a very lean future in terms of providing even the most basic city services due to state-imposed revenue caps on municipalities.”

Mayor Steve Adler said the city’s move to provide direct cash payments and other assistance to families during the Covid-19 pandemic showed the city can manage those kinds of programs, with the data gathered from the pilot program possibly helping to design any expansion in the most efficient way possible.

“Society has to deal with the issue of economic insecurity and it has to do that in a lot of different ways with lots of programs, and lots of them involve a public subsidy or relief of one kind or another,” he said. “Direct assistance allows families to spend what they get in the way that is most transformative for their families rather than the government indicating it knows best how to deal with their economic insecurity.”

The call for the city to explore a universal basic income gained momentum during the pandemic, with the Economic Prosperity Commission voting in January for the creation of a pilot program. Nathan Ryan, vice chair of the commission, said the statewide oil dividend paid to Alaska residents and the successes shown in other pilot cities show that a basic income program is worth studying, especially as Austin’s affordability concerns increase.

“When people are not able to afford basic things like food, shelter and other things like that it has cascading effects, like when people are unhappy their health gets worse, attendance at school gets worse, trust in social institutions suffers and crime gets worse because people are desperate economically,” he said. “With Austin being in the position it is in we have to address that. Our goal as a commission is to look at how to bring prosperity to everyone, and a basic income is worth exploring and studying, and if it works, it is worth implementing.”

Editor’s Note: Nathan Ryan is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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