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Memo offers first peek at recipients of guaranteed income program

Tuesday, November 8, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

Early data from the city’s guaranteed income pilot program show that the $1,000 monthly payments are reaching residents with acute financial needs and varying degrees of housing instability.

A memo released last week by the Equity Office included some of the first findings from surveys taken in September as the 135 participating households were receiving their first payments. The data, collected by Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, showed 30 percent of the recipients have a household income of less than $10,000, while 51.8 percent bring in less than $15,000 per year.

Public benefits are also commonplace for program participants, with 49.4 percent receiving medical assistance, 28.3 percent receiving food assistance and 22.2 percent receiving housing support.

More data from the initial round of surveys is expected to be released toward the end of this month, with the next round of surveys due to go out to participants in March after six months of payments. The Equity Office and nonprofit group UpTogether are partnering in administering the pilot program, and hope to discover the results cash payments can have on extremely low-income residents as well as how the payments impact larger communities.

City Council approved the program’s creation in May with funding to cover 85 households. The St. David’s Foundation contributed funding for an additional 50 participants.

In May, the city will receive a six-month summary with initial recommendations regarding the program, with a 12-month analysis due in February 2024 and a final report scheduled for later that summer.

Fay Walker, a research associate for Urban Institute, said Austin’s program is unique because it is municipally funded with the built-in potential for expansion in the future.

“For a city, if the pilot works well and they meet the goals they’ve set out, then the city has greater capacity to scale up that pilot with greater potential for policy change down the road.”

As the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years, much of the economic insecurity the program aims to remedy is rooted in housing instability, another component of Austin’s program that makes it different from other cities that simply want to get cash into the hands of needy residents.

“Austin’s focus on housing stability is fairly unique,” Walker said. “A lot of pilots are focused on general economic stabilization and mobility, but Austin really built into the program that it was about ensuring housing stability. That focus, even if it’s not out of line with other cities, it’s unusual to have that specific focus.”

Kellee Coleman, interim chief equity officer, said the program will paint a clear picture of how those in need intend to make the most of the extra income, and what needs they are unable to meet without comprehensive assistance.

“The indicators are connected to how has this investment in our community been able to keep people afloat and give a little bit of mobility at a time when there is not a lot of options. This program can really be a way to get people the help they need when there isn’t a lot out there,” she said.

“It also begs the point that folks need more than just one thing. The data from Urban Institute and UpTogether does a great job of illustrating that we need systemic help. We need these dollars invested in the community along with other programs that help people.”

Future surveys and data gathering for the program will include in-person interviews with participants, which Coleman said will be helpful in getting insights into specific households and how they are coping with the rising cost of living in Austin.

“I want to hear what the people are saying. For a lot of people it’s really about the numbers, but this is also about people and we often miss that. I want to hear about the amazing, creative things people are doing to make it here in Austin in a moment when it is harder than ever.”

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