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Smaller Alaska dividend check likely to disappoint ... for good reason

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
iStock photo

In the interests of full disclosure, a part of me rejoiced a bit when I saw the news that this year’s Permanent Fund Dividend had fallen to $878. You see, back in April, life was a bit chaotic. I was trying to put in a high tunnel and balance kid schedules and work and …. I kinda forgot to apply. Really. I even thought of it that day, and said I’d do it later that night ... and forgot. After 20 years in Alaska, I won’t be getting the payout this year. Oops.

At some stages in my life, I was a really organized person. I had lists saying what was for dinner each night that week, and shopped accordingly so I never did the 5:30-p.m.-stand-in-front-of-the-open-fridge routine. My laundry never piled up. There was always gas in my tank. Then things changed. Some of my slide away from Martha Stewart-ish behavior is due to circumstances of life — two busy kids, geriatric dogs, chickens that keep trying to escape from their pen, ever-expanding gardens, and a steady flow of friends and family who keep the schedule hopping.

But most of it, I have to admit, is my own doing. I tend to try to milk as much out of life as I possibly can, and in doing so, put minor details like the 10 minutes it takes to sign up for the PFD on the back burner until the absolute last minute. A lot of the time, I get away with it, in large part because a lot of other people are doing the same exact thing. But last April, it backfired. Because, you see, it’s now that I really need those lists about what’s for dinner. Once upon a time, I could keep track of dozens of things without ever dropping a ball. Now? Not so much. I have two alarms set to keep me from forgetting to get to the bus stop on time to pick up my son. I send myself emailed reminders about everything from appointments to birthdays. Hasn’t done anything to ease the monthly donation I make to the public library when I bring my books back in late, but...

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked.

Despite the fact that I am not getting the PFD this year, and all sour grapes aside, I feel for all those who are looking at that number and biting their lip. It’s hard to imagine if you aren’t here what an impact that chunk of money flowing into the economy has in this state. When I lived in Anchorage, there was a carnival-like atmosphere the week the PFDs came out. A lot of people were cheerful and some were extravagant and the stores were bustling. Even people who were using their money responsibly — my unscientific poll of friends and family indicates that dentists wind up with a lot of the PFD money — were smiling. And surely, businesses were, too.

So I wonder what this drop below $1,000 will do for all that. Maybe because the number is low, people will just fold it into their regular budget and maybe buy a few extra things, but not much. And I guess it will trickle back into the economy one way or another regardless. Maybe more of it will go to things that Alaskans really need — heating fuel is probably high on the list if this winter is anything like last winter. Maybe some winter tires. Snow boots. A new shovel. Heck, I could spend most of this year’s PFD on a COSTCO run, I’d bet.

No question, though, it’s not great news for Alaskans heading into the winter. Already, weather is ominously whacky. If the rain falling at my house today were snow, no one would be going anywhere. And winds. Gracious! One can only imagine what Old Man Winter has in store for us this year.

There’s no doubt that it costs a good bit more to live here than it does to live in the Lower 48, on average. And in rural Alaska, it’s probably double that. A 2011 survey by the Alaska Department of Labor showed groceries cost the most in Dillingham at $354.72 per week. The same items would have been just $141.95 in Anchorage, and $115.62 in Portland. Housing in the more urban areas of the state is very high, though, and since we spend most of our paycheck to pay for the roof over our heads, the urban dweller isn’t necessarily that far ahead.

So the whole state, I think, looks to that dividend to balance things out a bit. And this year, it’s not going to add much weight to the plus side of the ledger. Perhaps the Alaska Legislature might consider that when it looks at its coffers this year and tries to figure out how to keep the state’s economy on the up-and-up. Maybe this is the year to offer an energy rebate. Because no matter how you cut it, this low PFD isn’t going to help those struggling to make ends meet, especially in the state’s rural communities. Even for those organized enough to actually remember to apply.

Carey Restino is news editor of the The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary was originally published. It is reproduced here with permission.

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