Guaranteed income is a guaranteed distraction

Today Council approved the $1.2 million guaranteed income pilot that will distribute $1k/month to 80 families for a year. It was approved on the consent agenda, with only one member, CM Alison Alter, opposed, although two other likely opponents, CM Mackenzie Kelly and Leslie Pool, were absent.

The vote followed supportive testimony from three dozen activists and regular people, including some who had benefited from UpTogether, the nonprofit that will be running the program. They told moving stories about living in poverty and the difference that cash assistance can make for people living on the brink.

One single father described getting financial assistance from UpTogether last year in the wake of his home being severely damaged by Winter Storm Uri. If not for the assistance, he suggested, he would have been able to maintain housing for himself and his daughter may have been taken away by child protective services.

All of these stories captured the tragic reality that the world’s richest country allows so many of its people to languish in poverty. All of the problems they described are an outrage. All levels of government have a moral imperative to address them. But I don’t think city government has a moral imperative to offer 80 households a grand a month for a year.

If anything, it’s frustrating to see so much attention –– from activists, elected officials, the media –– on something that will do so little.

If no other city or state in the country was already doing this, then there might be a case for Austin to lead the way in demonstrating the potential of universal basic income. But there have been many other publicly and privately-funded UBI pilots, including one run by the same group in Austin last year.

Why do we need to spend precious funds studying a program that the city is in no position to scale? Instead, we should focus on tangible ways to reduce costs for the city’s working class and poor. The most direct ways to do that are:

  • rental assistance
  • utility discounts through Austin Energy’s Customer Assistance Program
  • affordable housing bonds to build income-restricted housing

The city can also make a big difference indirectly by making it as easy as possible to build market-rate housing. This addresses the supply crunch that is leading rents to skyrocket. New housing near public transit offers the additional benefit of offering people low-cost alternative to car use, which is a major financial burden for those on the bottom rungs of Austin’s economic ladder.

Explaining her opposition, Alter noted that the city can’t fill key positions –– from lifeguards to 911 operators –– because it doesn’t have the money to pay competitive wages.

“I believe that we do need to invest in people and their basic needs but I’m not sure this is the right way at this time,” she said.

That’s a good start. The next step would be for Alter to recognize that the city’s staffing crisis also has a lot to do with her and others’ refusal to address the housing crisis.

One last point: this is a program that has little policy impact but potentially heavy political consequences. It just feeds the narrative of an out-of-touch City Council pissing people’s tax dollars away. It’s no surprise that media outlets that barely pay attention to City Hall are covering this story. It’s an easy controversy. Hell, Fox News wrote something up on it!

It’s impossible to completely avoid manufactured outrage from the likes of Abbott and Mackowiak –– or even genuine backlash from unhappy constituents –– but why make it easy for them?

This is a free sample of the Austin Politics Newsletter from May 5, 2022. To get DAILY insights on city politics, click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

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