Apr 29, 2024 - News

How no-strings-attached cash impacted San Antonio families

Illustration of a ladder with hundred-dollar bills on the rungs.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A local guaranteed income pilot program wasn't as impactful for people in poorer neighborhoods as it was for those in neighborhoods with higher incomes, a new evaluation shows.

Why it matters: San Antonio remains one of the most impoverished major cities in the country. Evaluations of programs aimed at changing that can help local officials decide how best to address poverty.

State of play: Proponents of universal basic income say it can help lift families out of poverty without as much red tape as traditional social safety nets.

How it works: In San Antonio, 1,000 families received more than $5,100 from December 2020 to January 2023 in a pilot program administered by nonprofit UpTogether. People spent the money however they needed.

  • They received an up-front payment of $1,908 followed by eight quarterly payments of $400 each.
  • Participants had a household income below 150% of the federal poverty line.
  • They must also have faced financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reality check: While the money made a noteworthy impact on the lives of the participants, they continued to experience significant hardship, including financially, according to the report.

By the numbers: In neighborhoods with higher incomes, participants saw their average monthly income increase from less than $300 at the beginning of the program to more than $400 at the end.

  • In the poorest neighborhoods, the average monthly income rose from less than $300 to about $350.

Funding for the $5 million pilot came from both the city, which contributed about $2 million, and private funders including the H. E. Butt Foundation, Methodist Healthcare Ministries and San Antonio Area Foundation.

What they're saying: "It secured my housing. It secured my transportation. And it did it by keeping my dignity by not having to fill out papers and tell people my struggle," participant Ingrid Sullivan said in a statement.

  • "Some people didn't have jobs for so long, so a lot of these payments were really helping people stay afloat," Ivanna Neri, senior director of partnerships at UpTogether, tells Axios.

The other side: The Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked a similar program in Harris County, granting a request from Attorney General Ken Paxton, per the Texas Tribune.

  • "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," Paxton has said.

Zoom in: A goal of the program is for people to use the money for education or job training to build new skills over time that allow them to eventually increase their base income, Neri says.

By the numbers: In a follow-up survey, 20 participants said they were taking some type of course. Of those, six said their decision to enroll was influenced by the UpTogether pilot.

Zoom out: Cities like San Francisco, Des Moines and Austin have tried guaranteed income programs in recent years.

What's next: A second pilot in San Antonio is ongoing now with 25 of the original participants, UpTogether spokesperson Rachel Barnhart tells Axios.

  • They're receiving $500 a month for 18 months, a total of $9,000 each, until December.
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