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Editor's note: Harris County has paused the application process for a new guaranteed-income program while officials sort through an undisclosed legal question. Commissioners Court planned to go into executive session Tuesday to discuss the matter.

Harris County is launching a guaranteed-income program Monday that will give certain low-income households a $500 monthly stipend in hopes of providing a financial cushion that can help close the wealth gap.

The program, Uplift Harris, is being funded through $20.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. It will run for 18 months and provide the stipends to more than 1,900 randomly selected households that live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. For example, an individual below that threshold would make under $29,160 a year; a family of four would be under $60,000.

The monthly stipend will come with virtually no spending restrictions aside from prohibitions on anything that would harm the safety and security of others, involves criminal activity or supports terrorism.

The initiative will be overseen by the county health department and has been championed by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis who called it an opportunity to “help alleviate some of the generational poverty that has existed for so long.”

“I think we have an obligation to do everything we can to lift families up and out of poverty and create shared prosperity,” Ellis said.

The county is joining nearly 60 cities and counties across the country, including Baltimore, Austin and Denver, that have launched similar programs, according to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a network of leaders who advocate for such initiatives. The majority of the programs are mayor-led, but at least eight are county-based.

Harris County’s program will accept online applications from Jan. 8 to Jan. 26. To qualify, applicants must reside within the ZIP codes that are among the highest poverty rates in the county: 77050, 77093, 77051, 77060, 77028, 77033, 77026, 77081, 77547 and 77091. Those participating in Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self Sufficiency Harris County also are eligible. Applicants will be notified of their selection in mid-February.

Third-party researchers will assess the program’s effectiveness, county officials said.

Nearly half of Houston-area households experience financial hardship, according to the United Way, with 14 percent living below the federal poverty threshold. Another 31 percent of households, who are above that line, still struggle to get by.

Guaranteed income, sometimes referred to as universal basic income, has been discussed for decades as a possible solution to help improve poverty levels. The idea has risen in popularity in recent years, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. It was central to Andrew Yang’s platform during the 2020 presidential election.

Advocates say it can provide a safety net to help mitigate generational poverty or ease concerns about housing and food instability, while opponents call it a handout that people could spend irresponsibly.

Sarah Cowan, an associate professor of sociology and executive director of the Cash Transfer Lab at New York University, said there are few programs across the United States that do not involve restrictions or monitoring participants.

“The idea behind guaranteed income is that it's simpler for everyone involved and then it gives families more autonomy to solve their unique problems with their unique set of resources,” she said. “It’s trusting families to know what they need in order to thrive.”

Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, was among the first to launch a guaranteed income program in 2019. The experiment gave 125 people living at or below the city’s median household income $500 a month, no strings attached, for two years. A study of the program found that not only did participants' financial situations improve but so did their physical and emotional health. However, a separate study from the Center for Guaranteed Income Research at the University of Pennsylvania said the pandemic made the impacts from the stipend less pronounced.

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    The experiment in Stockton also was a small sample, researchers said, and programs like one offered in Los Angeles, where more than 3,000 participants received $1,000 a month, have not yet been fully studied.

    One of the participants of the Stockton program, Tomas Vargas Jr., said he used to live paycheck to paycheck. He also wanted to find a higher paying job. To do that, however, he would have to take time off from his part-time supervisor job at a warehouse.

    After receiving the stipend, he was able to change both of those things. He now works as an administrative assistant, helping with web design and computer programming. Vargas said he also was able to build up a nest egg that set him up for success when the program ended in 2021.

    He credited the program for raising his confidence to “not be so scared” of opportunities and to invest in himself. He also credited it for healing his family.

    “The biggest thing that I say that came from the program was there's a generational trauma that healed my kids,” he said. “They aren't looking at life in the same way I had to as a child. They won’t ever have to be scared of the lights turning off or not having food in the refrigerator.”

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    McKenna Oxenden is a reporter covering Harris County for the Abdelraoufsinno. She most recently had a yearlong fellowship at the New York Times on its breaking news team. A Baltimore native, she previously...