Texas AG Blocks Harris County Guaranteed Income Program—A Setback for Racial and Economic Justice

We must conquer the obsession with politicians to punish individuals for structural problems created by racism.

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis during a press conference responding to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit challenging the Uplift Harris program, a guaranteed income program, on April 10, 2024. Harris County officials called the lawsuit a targeted act. (Yi-Chin Lee / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

Imagine being guided by cruelty so deep you are compelled to take the food out of the mouths of your hungry neighbors. You don’t need this food yourself—in fact, you’re going to turn around and throw it in the trash.

For nearly 2,000 intended recipients of a guaranteed income pilot program for low-income residents that was set to distribute $500 monthly for 18 months in Harris County, Texas, this is their reality. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has blocked implementation of the program—a move upheld, at least temporarily, by the state’s Supreme Court, just a day before initial payments were set to begin last week. 

This decision reflects a troubling pattern of racism and anti-Blackness infused into our economic policies that undermines efforts to create a fair and just social safety net. This concerted effort led by Republican-majority states is fueled by the notion that Black people need to prove their worth in order to receive government support. We must finally abandon punitive measures that are rooted in a distrust of Black people, particularly Black women, and instead embrace a vision of shared prosperity to rectify historical wrongs perpetrated against Black women while benefiting us all.

To get to that elusive promised land, we must first conquer the obsession with politicians to punish individuals for structural problems created by racism. At the core of the argument to stop the Harris County program is a provision in state law barring the use of public funds to benefit individuals. This is an absurd codification in a country whose Constitution outlines that the existence of its government is to serve the people.

What these politicians are really trying to say in this instance is that public funds should not be used to benefit Black people, as there is no argument when public funds are used to bail out shareholders of banks or airlines. And when everyday people across the country are dealing with the repercussions of a laissez faire capitalist economy which resulted in persistent inflation, jobs that increasingly provide little to no benefits and crises in housing, caregiving and healthcare; providing unrestricted funds is a proven and efficient way for governments to support their residents. 

This concerted effort led by Republican-majority states is fueled by the notion that Black people need to prove their worth in order to receive government support.

We’ve already seen this at the national level with the tremendous success of the expanded child tax credit, an existing program that was enhanced temporarily in 2021 to provide nearly every parent in America with monthly cash they were free to spend however they deemed necessary. The results were transformative: The program resulted in the largest drop in poverty in this country we’ve ever seen, with an outsized benefit for Black and brown children. Families overwhelmingly spent the money on their basic needs, and—contrary to conservative talking points—parents did not work less.

Despite its overwhelming success, Congress—namely all Republican senators and Democrat Joe Manchin—allowed the program to expire. Childhood poverty spiked more than 40 percent the first month the program lapsed.

Why did lawmakers insist on letting kids suffer when they held the tool to alleviate it? Because of the racism and sexism woven into the fabric of this country—evident in GOP leaders stalling the most recent, extremely watered-down, iteration of the program this year on the grounds that there wasn’t enough forced labor for recipients.

As we outlined in our recent paper from Maven Collaborative, “Work Requirements Are Trash,” the bipartisan obsession with withholding safety net benefits in exchange for labor is both ineffective and bigoted. Not only are work requirements tied to actually leaving recipients in deeper poverty—they also bloat government spending by locking up benefits in red tape. They are also based on damaging and historically inaccurate narratives of Black women as welfare cheats who should be forced to work for white employers, as illustrated in a South Carolina town’s attempt to pass an ordinance to require Black women to accept work as cooks and laundresses for white families.

As our co-author and work requirements expert Ife Finch-Floyd put it: “Slavery is the original work requirement.”

Rather than continuing this racist legacy through the perpetuation of work requirements and blocking of unrestricted benefit programs, policies should aim to provide meaningful assistance and opportunities for economic stability.

Programs like guaranteed income not only offer financial support but also promote dignity, autonomy and long-term success for families—particularly Black families who have been historically locked out of government-subsidized income and wealth-building programs. Don’t for a second be fooled that conservative politicians don’t know this—it is the crux of why they oppose these pilots. 

The bipartisan obsession with withholding safety net benefits in exchange for labor is both ineffective and bigoted.

While decisions like the Harris County ruling often have a chilling effect on other efforts, there are important signs that at least some lawmakers will not be swayed from their dedication to helping struggling constituents:

  • Just this week, Chicago’s new mayor announced he’d be continuing his predecessor’s guaranteed income program with an infusion of $32 million in public funding.
  • A new initiative in Flint, Mich., serves as a beacon of hope and a model for other communities looking to reimagine their social safety net programs: Anti-poverty advocates there teamed up with state leaders to shed restrictions on welfare funding to allow for the support of a groundbreaking program that provides a guaranteed income to every newborn in the predominantly-Black city (which still doesn’t have clean water, by the way).

True progress toward economic justice requires a shift in mindset and policies that centers equity and inclusion. Guaranteed income programs have been proven to reduce poverty, improve mental health outcomes, and stimulate local economies. They are rooted in a long history of Black women’s leadership, and offer a much-needed vehicle to close persistent racial economic gaps and can be narrative and policy disruptors when designed correctly.

We urge policymakers to fight against the antiquated beliefs fueling the current wave of conservative anti-guaranteed income efforts and instead prioritize this evidence-based policy that uplifts marginalized communities to pave the way for true economic justice.

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About and

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is co-president and co-founder of The Maven Collaborative in Oakland.
Saadia Van Winkle (McConville) is a writer and former television journalist. She currently runs communications for several economic justice and policy organizations.