Bill Dennie Cook wrote an excellent letter responding to my recent column arguing that paying no taxes is getting something for nothing, an evil harmful to society and individuals. He wonders if I support the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program — which he argues is also getting something for nothing, particularly for any Alaska migrants who may have come here specifically for that purpose. He requested a follow-up, which I am happy to provide.
The dividend is not quite getting something for nothing, though it can easily be understood as such. Former Gov. Jay Hammond (“Diapering the Devil”) especially, but also all the authors of the Permanent Fund and the dividend program, thought that the people of Alaska should receive some just compensation for allowing multinational energy corporations to appropriate and profit from a very lucrative natural resource that belongs to all Alaskans. He was adamant that all Alaskans should receive some benefit since the resource belongs to all Alaskans. In his sense, we’re selling the resource, and we should be paid accordingly. And he did not think the tax regime put in place by the state Legislature was adequate payment, particularly since, given the vicissitudes of legislative decisions, not all Alaskans necessarily benefit equally from those actions.
Hammond addressed the problem of people moving to the state just for the dividend, however large or small that actual number may be. He proposed that the dividend be linked to the length of time a person had lived in Alaska, more dividend for more residential longevity. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that proposal on the grounds of non-discrimination, mandating equal benefits for all.
A graduated income tax is a fair method of financing state government. The greater one’s income, the greater one’s tax contribution. The Permanent Fund dividend is a portion of every Alaskan’s annual income. Thus, it should be taxed accordingly. That allows people with greater incomes, those with less need, to contribute more to the functioning of the state, and lessens the burden on people with less income, those most needy, who as a consequence would keep more — perhaps all — of their annual dividend.
The question of whether people who do not work should receive state benefits is an ancient one. Biblically, Cain’s answer to God, whether he was his brother’s keeper, has been interpreted through the ages to ask what is our personal responsibility to others in society. It is the tradition of Judaism and Christianity that people do have a personal responsibility for their fellow humans. Secularists embrace this concept, as well, accepting that we are all part of something greater than ourselves, the society in which we live and which shapes us, and that we do not, cannot, stand apart from it. Martin Luther King, Jr., the night before he was assassinated, answered the question with an emphatic “yes.” Speaking about the oppressed sanitation workers in Memphis, here is what he said: “Be concerned about your brother. But either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” In other words, think beyond yourself.
People do not work for many reasons: necessity to care for children, physical or mental disability, limited perceptual and rational capacity, simple misfortune, opiate addiction, the greed and ruthlessness of others, laziness. The percentage of freeloaders is actually quite low, however, despite President Reagan’s campaign targeting of Linda Taylor as a typical “welfare queen.” The number of welfare recipients has declined in recent years, and most of the people receiving benefits are children. The average recipient receives benefits for less than a year.
Far more problematical for many is finding a “living wage,” one that will allow purchase of a modicum of food, shelter and clothing, with a small amount of disposable income. American taxpayers are subsidizing many Walmart workers, for example, who are not paid a living wage. Imagine the disabling frustration of working 8 to 10 hours a day and at the end of the month not having enough to pay the rent.
I’m glad that discourse on something for nothing struck me in my youth. I think it helped me become a more inclusive and less isolated person.
Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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