A state district judge ruled against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's lawsuit April 18 to stop Harris County's guaranteed income program, Uplift Harris, effectively allowing the program to distribute the $500 monthly funds to more than 1,900 eligible households living below 200% of the poverty line by the end of April.

Funding for the $20.5 million program was 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.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee represented the county in the case.

“Helping families in need is a proper use of government funds. Giving people the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty is both morally sound and good public policy," Menefee said in a statement.

County officials are expecting the state to appeal directly to the Texas Supreme Court.

What happened

Paxton filed a 16-page lawsuit on April 9 that argued the program redistributes public money in a manner that violates the Texas Constitution.

“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 said in the April 9 news release.

Harris County has responded that the program does not violate the Texas Constitution because it serves a “public purpose,” which Menefee said is the relevant test created by Texas courts.

"Uplift Harris will aid families in lifting themselves out of poverty, which will positively impact Harris County’s economy," Menefee said.

Paxton also argued that the selection criteria for Uplift Harris was not “rational” under the Texas Constitution’s equal protection clause because the county used a lottery system to determine which qualified applicants to select.

According to the county attorney's office, Harris County responded that each applicant had to meet income and geographic restrictions and the randomized selection of qualified applications does not violate the Texas Constitution seeing that Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs uses a lottery system as well.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis spearheaded the county program and called the judge's decision a victory in a statement.

"What we do here, whether it’s making it easier for people to vote or lifting families out of poverty, matters deeply to our constituents. It matters deeply to other counties looking for best practices," Ellis said.

Zooming Out

Harris County isn't the first entity in Texas to experiment with guaranteed income programs.

On April 18, Austin City Council approved its $1.34 million contract with nonprofit UpTogether, effectively continuing its guaranteed income program that began in 2022 which allowed low-income Austin households to receive $1,000 monthly payments. With the new contract, the city expects 96 households to receive the same $1,000 amount over a one-year period. After the one-year stabilization program, any further Austin income initiatives would require new funding and council approval. According to the Washington, D.C.-based research firm that monitored the program, participants ended up using most of their payments on housing costs and said they felt more housing-secure after enrolling, with many making progress on rent or mortgage payments and lowering their risk of losing housing.

San Antonio ran an income program a few years ago, also with UpTogether.

Also of note

Houston residents are supportive of a diverse set of policies aimed at addressing the area's housing challenges, according to a 2023 poll from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, which found 75% of city residents support using public dollars to provide low-income, working adults with a universal basic income as a means of addressing housing challenges.

Since 2011, the median price of a house in the city of Houston has more than doubled and now stands north of $330,000, according to the 2023 report.

Ben Thompson contributed to this report.