Alaska Mountain Fireweed

The Alaska Permanent Fund was started in 1982 to make sure Alaskans directly benefit from its resources in the wake of its oil boom in the 1970s. Part of the proceeds from investments of the principle, which is held in trust for the state and invested by an independent board, is shared yearly with all Alaskan citizens as the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). This is as close to a basic income by BIEN’s definition as has been achieved world-wide. It is paid equally to each individual regardless of age or financial status, without means tests or other conditions and regularly every year, although the amount differs depending on how the APF’s investments do over a five year period. It has inspired campaigns in many other countries, including Mongolia, South Africa and Goa, to share the profits from resource use as a basic income or dividend to all citizens. The PDF is under particular threat at the moment as a result of recent deficits in the State’s budget, which some legislators want to plug by taking the dividend payments away entirely.

BIEN News interviewed a board member from the Permanent Fund Defenders about the situation. Joe Geldhoff, a lawyer in Juneau, the capital of Alaska, said that “while it is in our constitution that Alaskan citizens should benefit from the state’s resources, the dividend itself is only in legislation.” The PFD allocation for Alaskan citizens needs to be approved by the state legislature every year. For the first thirty years it was paid equally from a fixed 25% share of the fund’s average profits over five years. In the past six years state politicians have whittled down the amount of dividend paid, “despite big promises at election time, which are often unrealistic.” There are worries that there might be no dividend paid out this year, despite the Fund making a profit of some $18.6 million, and large Federal subsidies to the state, especially since the Covid crisis. The PFD competes with state services and projects for priority, since the state government levies neither income nor sales taxes to cover its own spending, which also comes from Permanent Fund proceeds. “This should be a lesson for people advocating basic income schemes all over the world,” Mr Geldhoff said.

The Defenders want the eariler formula from Permanent Fund investments restored to the dividend, and enshrined in the State constitution to protect it from other budget demands and political maneuvering. Mr Geldhoff said that the current special session will be deciding this year’s dividend allocation, and may not pay it at all. The legislature may also consider a constitutional amendment to protect it and restore the original formula which, if approved, would then go out to be voted on by all state citizens. He expressed the worry, however, that there “aren’t enough adults” amongst state politicians, and that they could be too divided to see the latter option through.

“Young people have become very cynical about the political process,” Mr Geldhoff said, so the Defenders are working to educate all Alaskans about the role the dividend has played in “lifting people out of poverty, supporting private enterprise and combatting income inequality” and how they can get involved with saving it. He said that while those with higher salaries in the state’s large public sector have tended to save their dividend to send their children to university, the dividend has enabled people in rural areas with little cash to maintain and buy equipment for subsistence farming, hunting and fishing. Women in particular have used their dividend to get away from relationships which have gone bad, and to train for better jobs. “It’s really about whether you trust citizens to spend the money well or the politicians who tend to give contracts to their cronies,” he said. “This is our common wealth from which we all should have a direct share.”

A recording of our interview with Joe Geldhoff will be available soon. In the meantime people can support the all-volunteer Permanent Fund Defenders in getting their message out to Alaskans on their GoFundMe page. More information about their campaign and the history of the PFD can be found on their website, and the latest news can be followed on their Facebook page.