During the pandemic, millions of Americans received thousands of dollars in no-strings-attached cash assistance from the federal government, to be spent (or saved) however they saw fit.

Those unconditional payments came as the idea of universal or guaranteed basic income — basically, a regular, unconditional cash stipend from the government — was already gaining steam across the country.

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang popularized the concept during his campaign; around the same time, several cities, including Stockton, California; Tacoma, Washington and Hudson, New York piloted guaranteed income programs.

San Antonio quietly launched its own modest pilot at the end of 2020, with the goal of giving 1,000 low-income families $400 every quarter over two years.

Administered by UpTogether, a national nonprofit focused on anti-poverty efforts, funding for the more than $5 million pilot comes from the City of San Antonio and a range of nonprofits.

The city allocated nearly $2 million of its federal pandemic relief funds to the effort, while the rest came from private donors and organizations such as the H.E. Butt Foundation, San Antonio Area Foundation, Methodist Healthcare Ministries and the Kronkosky Foundation.

“There are a lot of hoops that [low-income] people have to jump through — burdens and rules and regulations — for someone to get certain help,” said David Rogers, H. E. Butt Foundation president and CEO, during a virtual panel discussion about such cash assistance programs last month.

“We can trust families to make good decisions for themselves if they had a little bit of extra funds,” Rogers said of the foundation’s decision to support such efforts.

‘We trust you’

UpTogether’s work is based on that concept of trust, said Frances Gonzalez, senior director for the San Antonio regional chapter of Asset Funders Network, grant-makers that focus on economic mobility, during the panel.

“One-third of folks here in San Antonio don’t have $400 in the bank. Half of Black and Latino households do not have $400 in the bank for emergencies,” she said. “Think about the opportunity to have a cash assistance program that says ‘Hey, we trust you, and we know and respect what issues you have and we know that you will do what you need to do to get your family to the next level.'”

UpTogether, formerly known as Family Independence Initiative, has administered various anti-poverty programs across the country for the past two decades.

The nonprofit was preparing to launch the San Antonio basic income pilot with the H.E. Butt Foundation and the city before the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020. The emergency need led the partners to pivot. The city quickly developed an emergency housing assistance program, while UpTogether, thanks to backing from the H.E. Butt Foundation, added a cash assistance component.

That program helped more than 170,000 San Antonians, including Christina Gonzalez, a 39-year-old mother of four who relies on federal disability payments to make ends meet.

Cristina Gonzalez (right), her daughters Julia De Anda (center), 17 and Jayla Gonzalez, 10 prepare to eat tostadas for lunch on a Sunday afternoon in June.
Cristina Gonzalez (right), her daughters Julia De Anda (center), 17, and Jayla Gonzalez, 10, prepare to eat tostadas for lunch on a Sunday afternoon in June. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Thousands of dollars in debt and behind on the mortgage and utilities for the South Side home where she and her children live, Gonzalez saw a Facebook post about the emergency assistance program and immediately applied.

The city’s grant allowed her to get current on her mortgage and bills, while the cash from UpTogether went toward groceries and other needs. The cash, Gonzalez said, gave her “room to breathe.”

Program designers hope the pilot, with its sustained quarterly payments, will give participants even more breathing room.

Analyzing the data

Under the two-year program, participants received an initial cash investment of $1,908 in December 2020 and will receive eight quarterly payments of $400 through January 2023. The nonprofit has distributed $3.9 million as of last month.

UpTogether also provides a digital platform for families to give and take advice on navigating life and achieving their financial goals, said Johnneka Brown, an UpTogether grant recipient who organized a support group on the platform.

“We talk about financial literacy, we talk about savings, budget — I help them with resumes,” said Brown, who with UpTogether’s help, celebrated becoming debt-free last year and now helps others to do the same.

UpTogether and its partners, including the University of Texas at San Antonio, are engaged in an analysis of the two-year program to see how it impacts members’ lives, said Ivanna Neri, an UpTogether partnership director based in Austin.

The analysis will serve as a guide for how San Antonio can sustain the program beyond 2023, Neri said. “We’re going to be learning a lot from that.”

But a status update from UpTogether released earlier this year offers some insight into how the pilot is going.

Recipients of the cash payments primarily used the money for housing, utilities, food, clothing and transportation, according to the update. They also reported using funds to accelerate financial, educational and career goals, including building businesses, completing college courses and professional certificates, and paying off debt.

Nearly a quarter reported increased assets, by an average of about $2,600 — such as boosting savings or paying off car loans.

But almost 60% said they have not seen a change in their assets, with the vast majority of those reporting no financial cushion at all. Cash payments of $400 per quarter are not enough to build wealth for the San Antonio recipients, the status report concludes.

A permanent basic income program in San Antonio would likely need to increase payment amounts, Gonzalez said, just to meet participants’ existing needs.

Indeed, San Antonio’s pilot offers very low payment amounts compared to other pilots.

For example, the City of Austin launched a $1.1 million pilot program earlier this year with UpTogether that is providing 85 households with $1,000 per month for a full year.

The Stockton program gave 125 residents $500 a month for two years. A preliminary analysis of that program found many participants found full-time jobs, could cover a $400 unexpected expense and were healthier, “showing less depression and anxiety and enhanced wellbeing.”

One tool among many

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who signed on to the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income coalition in 2021, to advocate for what he called “a credible and impactful tool” to alleviate poverty, and to share pilot program data that could help cities “collectively design programs in the future.”

Nirenberg said he’s “open to the conversation” about the using city’s general fund to sustain a guaranteed income program for low-income San Antonians, as Austin is doing. But a guaranteed income program alone is not sufficient to combat generational poverty, he said.

Basic income programs must be combined with efforts like the city’s $230 million SA Ready to Work education and job training initiative, and its investment in affordable housing — including an increased budget for the city’s older home rehabilitation programs, and the first-of-its-kind in San Antonio $150 million housing bond, he said.

“If cash assistance is not undergirded by some of the more comprehensive activities related to education and workforce development and access to good quality high paying jobs,” he said during the panel, “then I think we’re going to continue to spin our wheels.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org