More than one out of every 10 Texans still struggle. Despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Texans living in poverty remained at an average of 13.9 percent between 2018 to 2022, only a slight improvement over prior years. Rural poverty has grown and evictions in urban centers like Houston and Austin remain higher than before 2020, according to the nonprofit Eviction Lab.
To combat homelessness and evictions, Harris County and the City of Austin recently approved similar programs that aim to put more cash in the pockets of the poor. Rodney Ellis, the Harris County commissioner who spearheaded efforts there, argues on his website that it “will help families rise above poverty and strengthen all of Harris County. This is the first program of its kind in a Texas county and part of our broader strategy to advance economic prosperity for all people.”
Harris County’s program, planned to launch in February, aims to offer $500 to 1,928 participants for 18 months. Austin’s similar cash assistance program, a collaboration between the city and the nonprofit UpTogether that began in 2022, offers a smaller number of households $1,000 a month for a maximum of one year.
In both cases, that money comes with no strings attached. But Harris County is facing challenges even before its launch.
In mid-January, state Senator Paul Bettencourt sought a legal opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton, asking whether the Texas constitution’s ban on gifts bars counties—or cities—from providing direct financial assistance to individuals or families.
In an email to the Texas Observer, Bettencourt argued that: “Counties are not home rule cities in Texas, they cannot create new laws without State granting them authority. As the Local Government Chair I asked two simple questions, does Harris County have the Authority to implement Uplift Harris, and does a no strings attached program violate the Texas Constitution ’gift’ clause.”
Harris County officials are tapping federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for their efforts, but Bettencourt also has criticized their plans to use a lottery to pick participants from more than 48,000 applicants who must live in 10 zip codes with the highest poverty rates, have incomes below the federal poverty levels, and/or have been identified by the county’s public health system.
“This is 20 million dollars for only 1900 families, and who picks the lucky few winners?” he said in his statement to the Observer.
In an interview with Houston Public Media Bettencourt added that: “I don’t think it’s a policy, personally, that the state or the counties can afford, because of its expense, and quite frankly, when it’s no strings attached, I really believe it’s socialism.”
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee strongly disagrees. “This behavior has become par for the course with Sen. Bettencourt—he’s more focused on political games and weaponizing government institutions than making life better for the people of Harris County,” Menefee said in an email to the Observer. “The county’s program is legal and we will make that clear to the Attorney General.”
Austin’s similar cash support program has faced comparatively little opposition.
Beginning in 2022, city leaders agreed to help provide $1,000 a month in city funding to 85 participating families and private donors kicked in funding to assist another 50 households. In 2023, Austin City Council renewed the program, based partly on testimonials and evidence presented by UpTogether that the support system helped participants reduce debts, avoid evictions and even become homeowners. In addition to the cash support, UpTogether encourages its members to form a supportive network and offers tools to track their progress.
Uplift Harris, now set to launch in February 2024, was previously delayed after others raised questions about whether undocumented immigrants could participate. County Judge Lena Hidalgo recently told the Houston Chronicle immigrants lacking status won’t be eligible, but said she’s hoping to provide another alternative.
Given Bettencourt’s actions, Menefee says he’s ready to defend the county’s program as legal and, if necessary, file briefs to defend it. “They are taking shots at Harris County because we’re ensuring government is a tool to help people. It’s my job to defend this program, and I will.”