This year's permanent fund dividend was announced the other day: $878. Amid all the cheering on Facebook, I seemed to be one of the only people who said anything negative about the amount. All I said was, "Ew," but immediately people commented with things like, "Well if you don't want it, I'll take it." One girl basically even told me that I'm supremely selfish for not celebrating my "free" money.
Frankly, I'm surprised. For one thing, this is, in fact, fairly low for the permanent fund. (Actually, the 9th lowest in 30 years of the PFD.) Yes, I do understand that it's based on 5-year averages of the stock market so right now we're paying for the lows of 2007-2009.
I winced at the amount not for myself, but because I know that there are other people out there who absolutely depend on their PFD. It's not a good thing, I wish people wouldn't or didn't have to. But nevertheless, there are. Especially the elderly and single parents. It costs a lot to heat homes here, and nearly as much to keep the power on. (Unlike other places, our friendly power company will shut off people's power in the winter.) I know there are people who wait until they get their PFD check before they get their winter's supply of oil to heat their homes. A smaller PFD means that they have less money with which to stay warm. I don't have to choose between heating my home and eating, but there are people who make that choice all the time here. Am I wrong to be sad for them that this year is going to suck?
Many, many people who don't need to depend on the permanent fund for immediate needs save their child's permanent fund for things like college. It's what both mine and Shane's parents did, it's what our friends are doing for their daughter, and it's what we plan to do when we have kids. So low permanent fund years not only affect people right now, it also affects the future of all these kids who are going to rely on it to either pay for school or to pay back their loans. That sucks. I hate the thought that money often holds people back from getting the education they want, or from choosing the school that they want.
The low permanent fund number doesn't just affect household budgets, though. For better or worse the PFD has become an integral part of our economy. There are businesses which rely on this time of year as much as they do Christmas shopping because it helps them to get through the next year. While I don't think the rampant consumerism is so great for people or for our state, I do understand that there are large economic ripples from having a smaller permanent fund. Even if it's not consumer goods, people might just have a little bit less money to go to the movies, to eat dinner at a restaurant, or to give to charities. All of these things have serious implications for our state, and it affects everyone. I don't know if anyone's done a study about this, but I would assume that lower permanent fund years mean lower employment as well.
As for what we're going to do with our $1756 (that's a much nicer number, both of ours together) we're putting it right into our house fund. That might seem like yet another selfish reason to want more money, and in some ways it is, but I don't live in a vacuum or a bubble. Our housing market around here never really dropped, as far as I can tell, so it won't live or die based on young couples like me and Shane being able to finally afford a home. A low permanent fund means that it will take us a little bit longer to save up for a home, but we know we'll get to that point eventually. However, opening our apartment will have more of an impact. For Fairbanks, for the size of our apartment and what we get, for being pet-friendly, for its location, our apartment is amazing. Add in our amazing landlord and our place rocks. Really, truly. The horror stories of apartment hunting in Fairbanks! One place has low rent, but doesn't allow pets. Another might allow pets but have a shite landlord. Another might be low rent and allow pets, but it's waaaaay out there. I've had friends who've moved 4 times in six months due to various reasons. I know people who've been looking for a pet-friendly apartment (not cabin) in their price range for almost a year now. There's a reason we've stayed here for almost 4 years: we know we have a sweetheart deal. Hopefully we'll be able to pass this place along to someone else who will take advantage of all its benefits (like the garden, like walking to the University, like being able to have pets). Having our apartment open up will help anywhere from 2-4 people who've been looking for something just like it. That might be a small impact in terms of the grand scheme of things, but it will matter to someone.
This also isn't "free" money, as most people think of it. It's money that the oil companies paid so that they're not the only ones profiting off of Alaska's oil and gas, so that everyone gets a share in the benefits. It's still, as far as I know, something completely unique and I think the people who came up with the idea deserve to have statues and monuments in their honor. It's awesome. I am and always will be grateful for what I get. But it's not "free" because we're giving up something in exchange for it. Those same oil and gas companies now have a lot of power in our state, and they're major players when it comes to state politics. Sometimes, I'd rather give back the permanent fund if it would mean that we wouldn't have the oil and gas companies paying for our politicians.
Other Alaskans, how are you feeling about this year's permanent fund? Unmitigated joy? Disappointment? Ambivalence?