Writing Checks: Austin directly supports 96 families in need

Taniquewa Brewster received family-stabilization grants from the city of Austin.
Taniquewa Brewster received family-stabilization grants from the city. Image credit: Taniquewa Brewster

The heads of 96 local, low-income households will soon receive “family stabilization-grant” payments of $1,000 a month to spend as they see fit. The families–selected with the help of local community organizations–will start receiving payments in June that continue for 12 months. 

In April the Austin City Council approved $1,336,000 for the program, which is administered through a partnership with Oakland-based nonprofit UpTogether. UpTogether raises additional funds from private donors, who have included the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Google and the H.E. Butt Foundation. UpTogether oversees similar programs in numerous communities nationwide, including San Antonio. 

In a pilot program in 2021, the city and UpTogether extended a monthly grant of $1,000 to 173 households for 12 months. Private donors funded those initial experiments. The City Council opted to invest $1.3 million of its own money into the fiscal year 2023 program. It granted $1,000 monthly payments to 135 families. The city approved another $1.3 million this year to extend the program to 96 families in fiscal 2024. The new funds will benefit families that haven’t received such checks before.

Several funding recipients urged the City Council to renew the program at a council meeting on April 18. They included participant Taniquewa Brewster, the mother of five children. Brewster told Austin Free Press that she valued the program’s flexibility. She said that she spent some of that money on hospital bills. She also spent some on a leasing-agent class, which led to a full-time job at her apartment complex. 

The money also allowed her access to occasional small luxuries. They included a manicure and taking her kids on a road trip. “So many people are living paycheck to paycheck, the cost of living is so high, they do need a day where they can pamper themselves or do something outside of the normal for their family,” Brewster told us by phone. “It helps them bond.”

One community organization that helped select fiscal-2023 participants is the nonprofit Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA). GAVA organizes people in Austin’s Eastern Crescent around food and health issues. GAVA Policy Director Monica Guzmán told Austin Free Press that demand for the program wildly outstrips available funds. “There is such a great need economically for people that they are looking for any way to get financial assistance,” Guzmán said. “It speaks to why this should be built into the base budget” for the city.

GAVA Policy Director Monica Guzmán.
GAVA Policy Director Monica Guzmán. Image credit: Monica Guzmán

UpTogether reports that more than half of its local beneficiaries spent some of the money on housing. This increased the rate at which they stayed current on rent from 48 percent of participants to 62 percent, it reports. Meanwhile, participating households experiencing food shortages dropped from 82 percent to 70 percent. In addition to supplementing needy households with $12,000 a year, the program encourages recipients to network with other participants both locally and nationally.

It is relatively unusual for cities to spend their own money on these income programs as Austin has done, according to Ivanna E. Neri, UpTogether’s senior director of partnerships. “If you want to invest in real systems change, you want to think through sustainable funding sources,” she told Austin Free Press by phone. “Austin’s one of the cities that’s leading by example.” 

Support programs for low-income families traditionally target one specific need, as in the case of housing vouchers, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Travis County’s Medical Assistance Program (MAP). Direct cash payments empower low-income people to decide how best to allocate additional resources. Milton Friedman, the late Nobel prize-winning conservative economist, promoted a form of direct cash payments to lower-income people. More recently, the idea has been supported by tech disruptorsanarchists, and community organizers, alike. 

Not everyone is a fan. Houston Republican state Senator Paul Bettencourt recently denounced such programs as “lottery socialism.” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in April challenging a Harris County program that seeks to provide $500 a month to almost 2,000 lower-income residents. Dubbing this an “Illegal ‘Guaranteed Income’ Welfare Scheme,” Paxton said in a media release about his lawsuit that, “Taxpayer money must be spent lawfully and used to advance the public interest, not merely redistributed with no accountability or reasonable expectation of a general benefit.” The Texas Supreme Court temporarily suspended Harris County’s program in April while lower courts weigh Paxton’s claims.  

Paxton has not yet challenged Austin’s program. It may be on a firmer legal footing because Austin is a home-rule city. Responding to an Austin Free Press inquiry, a city spokesperson wrote that the city “is confident that its Family Stabilization Grant Program complies with all requirements of state law.”

The Washington-based Urban Institute assessed the impacts of Austin’s 2023-2024 program. It found that many recipients’ lives improved as a result of reduced housing and food insecurity. On average, about half of the money went to housing. 

Urban Institute researcher Mary Bogle, who studied Austin’s program, told the Austin Free Press that these programs can make cities more agile, perhaps preventing people from losing their homes. 

The programs also carry risks. The Urban Institute found that this supplemental income pushed one recipient off of Medicaid, and another off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “It’s forcing people to make difficult decisions about how they’re going to support themselves in the short run to get at long-term economic mobility,” Bogle said. She called this problem the “benefits cliff.” 

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