On a gray afternoon in Juneau, 36-year-old Kristen Hemlock sat on her bed picking at a cold McDonald’s chicken sandwich, waiting for the checks to arrive. Her four-year-old son, Eli, chubby and dimpled, lay on his stomach on a bottom bunk two feet away, distracting himself with YouTube cartoons. Six-year-old Mason wasn’t home from school yet, permitting a fleeting truce in the brothers’ perennial war over her phone. In a home the size of a dorm room, it was a more reliable source of entertainment than their toy trucks and guns. Broken drawers spilled out of a chipped wicker dresser, and fleece blankets, one patterned with the phrase “I love you to the moon and back,” blocked light from the lone window.
The boys’ father, 35-year-old Daniel Varner, sat at a tiny table in khaki overalls and work boots, jiggling his leg.
“It’s delivery mail, isn’t it?” he asked Hemlock.
“Yeah, so it might be tomorrow.”
“Oh yeah, it’s not coming. I was thinking post office box.”
“It could.” Hemlock emitted the nervous laugh she reserves for her saddest stories. “I’m hopeful.”
Most of the family’s 52 neighbors at St. Vincent de Paul Society’s transitional housing shelter, a faded blue building on the outskirts of town, were also waiting for money.
It was October 4, and pretty much everyone in Alaska was expecting it, with varying degrees of impatience—$1,600 for every man, woman, and child. For nearly four decades, the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) program, designed to share revenue from the state’s oil wealth, has made flat annual payouts to anyone who has lived there for at least one calendar year, barring those with certain criminal convictions. While the program’s architects didn’t use the term, it’s the closest thing today to a universal basic income program that has durably existed anywhere in the world.
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Katia Savchuk is a freelance magazine journalist based in Oakland. Her work has appeared in Forbes, the Washington Post, San Francisco Magazine, and elsewhere.
Co-published with Mother Jones.