Selected low-income families in Harris County’s most poverty-stricken ZIP codes could be on the receiving end for financial relief by the fall after Harris County commissioners approved by a 4-1 vote of a pilot program entitled Uplift Harris.

The bottom line

Qualified families under the guaranteed income program will be given $500 per month for 18 consecutive months, and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said there would be “no strings attached” or restrictions in terms of how recipients can spend their money.

“The reason it is what it is, is because this has already been studied at length,” Hidalgo said. “Now is it 100% the silver bullet for poverty. No, I mean, there is not a silver bullet for how to address poverty. There just isn't. But it is one of the things that has shown the most promise.”

The details

While officials said Harris County is the first Texas county to pilot a guaranteed income program, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis mentioned during the June 6 meeting that guaranteed income programs have proven positive results in numerous cities and counties in the country, including Cook County, Illinois; Newark, New Jersey; and Los Angeles County, California.

“Whether it’s putting food on the table, keeping the lights on, paying for gas, medicine or whatever else a family needs to make ends meet, a guaranteed income respects a person’s inherent dignity and entrusts them with the economic freedom they deserve and the resources they need to take care of their family,” Ellis said in a news release.

Gulfton in Southwest Houston is one of the proposed targeted areas in the Uplift Harris pilot program. (Melissa Enaje/Community Impact)
Gulfton in Southwest Houston is one of the proposed targeted areas in the Uplift Harris pilot program. (Melissa Enaje/Community Impact)

Going deeper

The $20.5 million program will be allocated by local and state funds from the American Rescue Plan Act as part of the county’s broader strategy to address the region’s economic inequality.

  • Up to 1,500 households who live below 200% of the federal poverty line, which in 2023 equates to approximately $60,000 for a family of four, would receive the funding.
  • Families will be randomly selected for the pilot program or will be vulnerable resident populations who are part of county programs, including ACCESS Harris County.
  • The initial program will run for 18 months and will be administered by a third-party agency.

Put in perspective

The income inequality gap between Houston’s most economically distressed versus prosperous ZIP codes shows an ongoing economic divide, according to a 2020 report by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The populations of Houston’s economically distressed ZIP codes, the report found, were predominantly people of color. It found that where one lives determines to a great extent how much access to quality education, health care, housing and public services one has.

The specifics

According to Hidalgo, the ARPA-funded pilot program could serve the following 10 ZIP codes:

  • Acres Homes
  • Eastex/Jensen
  • Forest Acres
  • Galena Park
  • Greater Fifth Ward
  • Gulfton
  • Northgate
  • Settegast
  • South Park
  • Sunnyside

What the program aims to provide, according to officials, are opportunities to reduce income volatility, increase employment, improve food security and provide housing stability. Other proponents mentioned included improving physical and mental health and improving children’s development and learning.

Those opposed

Questions about the management of the funding and restrictions were brought up during the meeting with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey, who voted against the measure. County Public Health Executive Director Barbie Robinson responded about the program’s design.

"This money is used to help support them in their lives, and they’re in the best position to make that determination of what they need.” Robinson said. “ That is one of the hallmarks of this program. It’s the difference between children going hungry at night or having their lights off.”