Three years ago, when I first wrote about guaranteed basic income programs popping up around the country and in Texas, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin were only beginning to explore the programs. Now, all three cities have them in some form and Harris County is hoping to join them.
Universal basic income is a simple, old concept: periodic, unconditional payments to qualified recipients.
What County Commissioner Rodney Ellis is proposing at this week’s Commissioners Court meeting is a guaranteed income pilot program that would be limited to “qualified households” for eighteen months. Funded using $20.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding, it would target the top ten high poverty zip codes in Harris County as well as participants of ACCESS Harris County, which coordinate services for those in need of services across the county.
The cohort of the program determined using zip codes will, likely, miss a lot of people across the county who would otherwise benefit. Parents make the choice every day, as mine did, to move into a “wealthy” zip code and make significant sacrifices including in terms of quality of housing they can afford simply to make sure their child gets access to a better school district or campus. Zip codes can, but certainly don’t always indicate someone’s financial need or economic status.
The program is well intentioned; who doesn’t want to help our neighbors who find themselves in need? But Commissioners, and those for whom they work, us, should question if this is the best way to address poverty and meet the needs of the most economically burdened in our county.
The American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds were intended to aid local governments in addressing the immediate needs caused by the COVID 19 pandemic. ARPA funding was intended to bridge the gaps of wage and revenue loss, increased expenses and other associated costs incurred by COVID 19, but local governments have relied on these one-time sources to test pet projects and create unsustainable programs that will either go away or fall on the backs of local taxpayers once federal funds run out.
And while this use might be legal, it certainly violates the spirit of the Act and is why people are distrustful of their government institutions. The guaranteed income pilot program wasn’t important enough for Harris County to plan for and build room in its general fund budget to fund, but it’s important enough for them to use COVID 19 emergency aid three years after the start of the pandemic and months after the end of it to create?
Harris County regularly argues there isn’t enough to adequately provide the basic services that residents deserve.
In March, Commissioners Court voted to support a bill in the Texas Legislature to create six new courts. At the time, Judge Lina Hidalgo abstained from the vote saying, “we’re putting ourselves in the hole $17 million annually. It’s just not responsible. It’s like we’re choosing one project we just decided to fund.” The same statement can certainly apply here. If the court approves this pilot either they intend to work the overall cost into the budget after COVID funds expire or they are doing so knowing that the program is unsustainable and plan to let it end.
$20 million would not only help the court system, but also our Houston Forensic Science Center. While the HFSC is largely funded by the City of Houston, it still provides services for some county agencies and is facing a 200 firearm case backlog that, according to the director, could take 20,000 labor hours to get through. They’re also struggling from a 78% increase in the cost of commercial DNA testing. If the county is going to invest money out of its traditional wheelhouse, why not for an existing agency that could use it to improve the quality of life for residents across the entire county?
The reason is because guaranteed basic income is an easy out. These payments are simply a bandaid to a much more serious problem, escalating cost of living, a problem which the county bears some responsibility for.
Under the current county administration we’ve seen a large expansion of government: the creation of offices like the County Administrator, Elections Administrator, Broadband Office, Office of Equity and Economic Opportunity, and the Office of Sustainability.
Harris County also created a tax-supported legal services fund for “indigent immigrant adults, children, or families in detention or facing the threat of deportation who are residents of Harris County.”
These are just a few examples and one can debate the necessity of these programs, departments, and offices but what is a fact is that each drives up the cost of Harris County government and that burden falls on us all to pay, even those who are economically disadvantaged.
Over the last decade, Harris County’s government has grown faster than the cost of population and inflation, according to Texas Public Policy Foundation, that means it has grown faster than residents’ ability to pay for it. TPPF estimated that the budget growth has cost a Harris County family of four, on average, $7,600 more in taxes.
Giving money away is easy, what’s difficult is restraint, introspection, and a willingness to reduce spending where needed, consolidate if necessary, give up political fiefdoms, and find ways to share services, decisions that would effectively reduce the burden that they place on local taxpayers.
Like I said, basic income is an old and simple connection and, quite frankly, under the right, limited circumstances it isn’t even the worst policy idea. But to address cost of living in a long-term and sustainable way, instead of seeking glowing headlines and praise, our Commissioners Court needs to assess the role they play in the increasing cost of living in Harris County, not give families a false sense of hope through a temporary, monthly stipend only for them to eventually strip it away.
Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and the Urban Reform Institute, both of which focus on researching and promoting free-market policies to foster upward mobility for those living in major metro areas. Blain has been published in the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, Forbes, the Houston Chronicle, the Hill, Wired, and HuffPost. He serves on the gov-erning board of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and the boards of Texas Families First, Good Policy Society, and Entre Capital, a commercial lender for businesses started by ex-offenders. In September 2021, Blain was appointed to a four-year term to the Texas Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights.