White Envelopes; a Short Story on Universal Basic Income
The sun rose on Goldsboro, North Carolina; it was 7:04 a.m. February 4th, 2030, a Monday.
As usual, Earnest Wells had already been awake since 6:30 a.m. and had just finished shaving his face when the sun shone brightly onto his bathroom mirror. Squinting through the suns reflection, Earnest paused for a moment to gaze at his graying hair then moved along into his room to dress in his usual attire.
He began with the Hanes Boxer Briefs, followed by the Wrangler Blues size 38 with the loose cut legs and tears in the right knee, some black ankle socks, a pair of rugged size 13 orange Timberland boots and a hardy long-sleeve t-shirt reading Charlotte Raceway in faded lettering. Thinking twice before leaving his room, Earnest grabbed his Wells & Son crew neck sweater; it had been a chilly winter this year in Goldsboro.
Sliding the sweater on over his outfit, Earnest continued along his regular morning routine taking him out the door to grab the mail before making breakfast. Reaching the mailbox and dropping its little front door, Earnest stiffened. Just under the Goldsboro News were two thick white envelopes stamped in bold red lettering: "IMPORTANT: Official U.S. Government Social Services. Instructions Enclosed," one addressed to a Mr. Earnest Wells, and another addressed to a Mr. Jeremy Wells, Earnest's 18-year old son.
Disgusted, Earnest collected the mail and hurried inside. Reaching the kitchen, Earnest started the stove and callously threw the letters onto the table. Ignoring the envelopes and even the newspaper, Earnest sternly cooked breakfast to the smell of four lonely fried eggs rising through the house. Earnest didn't bother with toast today. Or cheese. Just eggs.
"Jeremy! Eggs," he yelled up to his son with no reply.
Earnest reached for a plate and served himself two eggs. He sat at the table and ate the eggs alone. Finished, Earnest stood and reached the edge of the kitchen, flushed with irritation at his careless son. He paused, then filled his chest and raising his voice, "Jeremy, get the fuck down here! The bus arrives in 10 minutes."
Fumbling down the stairs and combing his hair, Jeremy apathetically responded, "Dad, it doesn't even matter if I am late. My first class is English. I already know how to do that."
Unamused, Earnest returned to the kitchen and placed the still steaming pan of eggs on the table for his son when the mail caught his eyes again. His mouth tensed and within a moment he grabbed the two envelopes and jammed them in the back-kitchen drawer.
Jeremy arrived at the table and lazily dropped in the chair.
"I'll see you at six," blandly spoke Earnest as he made off for work.
Ringing bells clattered as the front door to the Wells & Son office building opened.
"Good Morning, Earnest," cheered Betsy gleefully from the front desk as Earnest walked in giving her a forced nod and habitual half-wave. Betsy was the office Administrator and had been there since the company's second year. Earnest wanted to fire her but didn’t have the heart to do it.
Betsy Jenkins was the first employee he and his father hired to tackle administrative tasks starting back in 1995. Betsy was now a widowed mother of two with a warm spirit of love that made even Patron Saints look Devilish. Unfortunately, in Earnest's eyes, she couldn't keep up. Betsy was 62 years old with early onset arthritis in the hands and a bad hip, worst of all, she hadn't even kept up with technology. Betsy had a kind soul, but Earnest suspected she had just been hanging on until she reached the revered retirement benefits.
In some ways, Earnest saw a bit of himself in Betsy. Earnest himself was a widower from when he lost his wife 18-years ago while she was giving birth to their son, Jeremy.
Similarly, Betsy had just put her two kids through college which had left her $45,000 in debt. Earnest was just reaching that phase of parenting as Jeremy was prepared to attend East Carolina University that fall. Fortunately, though, for Earnest, the good times at Wells & Son had netted him a hearty savings account, so he wasn't worried about the costs, but the similarities made it tough for Earnest to ever really consider cutting her. Especially since he knew no one in this town was going to be hiring for administrative tasks anytime soon, not with that new Google Admin 365 software.
On his way to his office, Earnest passed banal greetings to the four other members of the office staff including Jay, the Accountant, Felix and Thomas the Sales Managers, and Shawn the Operations Manager. When reaching his office, Earnest paused to look out through his window in the back, calmingly, he appreciated the big workshop yard below that was full of wood saws, tire tracks, and one large shed full of tools stretching a hundred feet.
Wells & Son was everything to Earnest. Earnest had joined his father, Wilson Wells, in founding the company way back in 1994 when he was 19 years old. It wasn't until his father Wilson retired in 2013 that Earnest finally received full ownership, he was aged 38 and had been long awaiting the moment.
His father’s retirement was mobilized by the Great '08 Recession in the United States which had been an especially tough time for Wells & Son.
Being an all-around real estate handyman shop, anything that hurt people's pockets mostly hurt them. When the '08 market crash came, it seemed like the entire town of Goldsboro had given up on their properties. People were living in damaged homes and no one was making additions, the type of work Wells & Son survived on.
Surviving the tough era, Earnest received ownership and quickly grew the business, reaching a peak size of 20 handymen and ten office workers by 2023, which, for a small town, led Wells & Son to mostly dominate all property work in Goldsboro.
Then, everything came crumbling down.
In 2025, the U.S. Economy was crushed by what economists have been calling the Great Automotive Recession.
It all began when the no-name Senator from Arizona, Jerry Wallace, built a Presidential campaign on legalizing self-driving taxis and trucks and won the 2024 election. The Democrats took an all blue government and pushed for the new DRIVE Bill passing in 2025. Things were good for the first few months, but the collapse began when unemployment numbers sky-rocketed. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and UBER drivers who relied on the income started to default on mortgages, and entire highway towns began to falter. Once the decline started, a vulnerable, indebted youth from college loans went with it sending real estate to the worst it’s been since 2008. And as a real estate associated company, Wells & Son lost business, big time.
Since the market crashed in 2025, the company has had to shed employees cutting half of their staff to their current size now of 10 handymen and five office works.
It's been five years since the market crashed, and now, even in February of 2030, the market was still dismal. Country-wide moral was low, marriages were crumbling, and suicides were up. It was just a few months ago that Jeremy's high school had a student hang himself from the ceiling in the gymnasium after getting denied from Duke.
Good times or bad, Earnest showed up to work, just like his father.
Loosening his gaze from the work yard, Earnest approached his desk and sat in his dark leather swivel chair. Before he could dive into his work, he heard shuffling down the hall, it was Betsy with her bad hip.
Slowly arriving, Betsy spoke, "Earnest,"
"Don't forget we have a team lunch today at 12:30 in the conference room. Shawn is getting Subway. Do you want chips with your sub?"
Betsy went shuffling back down the hall until she reached reception and an exasperated puff could be heard of her chair as her body fell against the seat.
The time was 8:09 A.M., another day at Wells & Son.
Team lunches were always hit or miss; it depended on Earnest's mood. Earnest had a fun side, but in the tough times, he stiffened, and if he had recently lost a project, he could be really unpleasant.
Today, though, was a special day, and not just for Wells & Son, but for the United States. At 1:00 p.m. the miraculously re-elected President, Jerry Wallace, was to address the nation on the newly reformed and highly controversial welfare program that had just started that morning.
The new welfare program which was traditionally titled by economists as a Basic Income had been repulsively re-branded by the media as "Jerry Care." Jerry Care was supposed to be the big economic fix to the Great Automotive Recession which was currently the defining legacy of President Wallace.
The basic premise of the new program was to unconditionally send every single U.S. Citizen between the ages of 18 and 64 a check of $1,000 a month. The new program closed down all 126 previous welfare programs, added a new tax, and was an all-around policy gamble.
Most people called it the "fix all or move to Canada" bet.
Earnest was very against the new policy as were Felix and Thomas the Sales Managers. Shawn, the Operations Manager, remained indifferent as did Jay the Accountant. Betsy was very much in support.
Arriving for lunch right on at 12:30 p.m., Felix and Thomas found Jay, the Accountant, had already seated himself. The two of them sat down across from Jay and chatted while awaiting the others. Betsy was next into the room, followed by Earnest.
"What's up, boss?" called Felix, reclining in his chair, not hesitating to egg on the emotions of the room.
"Business as usual," responded Earnest.
Earnest clicked on the T.V., changed the channel to the news, and turned it to a low volume just as Shawn arrived carrying Subway bags. Thomas cheered. Subs were passed around, Betsy poured drinks, and the crew didn't hesitate to dig in.
There was silence in the room except for the crunching of sandwich lettuce and the low hum of the local news preparing for the Jerry Wallace address.
"The press is clamoring here today at Capitol Hill..." read the announcer.
"Big day, huh?" muttered Felix.
"Communism, actually,” responded Earnest, turning up the television as the program continued.
"....the first payments of the controversial Jerry Care were sent out today to all U.S. Citizens residing within the 50 States between the ages of 18-64. Recipients should see payments via direct deposit or in thick white envelopes. Checks must be cashed within six months. It is reported to be a punishable offense of 3-5 years for parents or caregivers to withhold payments from children or dependents."
"Earnest, honestly, I’d rather not get into the political stuff right now. I’m curious, how the January numbers are looking with the new value-added tax?" asked Shawn, the Operations Manager.
Shawn was a brilliant young gun hired by Earnest seven years ago straight out of Duke with a degree in Statistical Science. With a tight job market, Shawn had to take what he could get despite ambitions to work in Artificial Intelligence. Shawn was especially worried about the new VAT tax levied by the Jerry Care bill; it meant Wells & Son had to charge more to cover expenses.
"How are the numbers? The numbers are fucking down, that’s what. Nobody is doing anything. Everything is screwed! This whole Jerry Care thing has everyone freaking out. A flat-rate VAT is blowing everyone's lids. No one knows how the market will react. Inflation could skyrocket, the whole system could break, and worst, 90% of people don't even know what a value-added tax is!! No one is spending! It's all to shits!" Earnest was exasperated and shaking his head.
Felix and Thomas nodded along. Jay looked onward in silence. Betsy listened carefully, trying to bite her tongue until she couldn't help it.
"Earnest, this is going to be great for us, all of us. They are saying with my expenses I am going to net an extra $6,000 a year. My kids each almost $7,000 a year. With their help and this bill, I'll nearly cut my debt in half. You wouldn't believe what that means!" Betsy slowed her voice and recoiled after talking, knowing she had derailed the discussion immediately.
Earnest looked at Betsy, "Listen, Betsy, there is just no reason in hell Jeremy should be getting $12,000 a year. The kid can't even get himself out of bed. I make the meals, he lives rent-free, and now he's getting $1,000 a month? That's just shit principles. Every 18-year old kid across the U.S. just woke up today to a big lesson that Uncle Sam wants you to be a lazy snob."
Betsy opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted--
"And here he comes, here comes President Wallace!" excitedly announced the T.V. Host.
Felix, angry, motioned his Barbecue Sub at the screen and yelled, "this guys a fool!!" dropping lettuce on the table.
President Jerry Wallace took the stage.
"Today, is a good day," Wallace began, "today is the first day that the United States of America, a country founded on the principles 'for the people, by the people', will indeed begin to deliver on its foundational virtues of democratic prosperity for all. Never before has a nation been wealthy enough or well governed enough to provide what our beautiful country is delivering today: a sense of confidence to every single citizen that they have enough resources to buy dinner tonight, enough to sleep under a roof tonight and maybe, just maybe, enough resources to start a company tomorrow.
At $1,000 a month, every single working age individual has enough to cover their basic necessities without the burden of tedious, underpaid work to abusive employers. The new Basic Income gives any man or woman the freedom to dream, to create or to sing. No more will we have....."
Earnest shut off the T.V.
"Fuck these guys. They are giving up on us! They are selling out all of the work to the god damn tech companies and leaving us all to fight in the streets. We need jobs! This man says, 'the burden of work,' What!! We need work! I'm not no fucking pansy artist! I don't want to sing! They are just selling out and letting the techies have it all!"
Earnest dropped his barely eaten sub and grumbled his way out of the conference room. It was a short lunch this time around.
The rest of February came, and the rest of February went.
Time passed and with every new month, a new set of white envelopes arriving at the Wells' household from the United States Government with a set of $1,000 checks, one for Earnest and one for Jeremy, finding its home among the others in the back-kitchen drawer.
Earnest had no interest in cashing the checks. He didn't want the money, not if it was a hand out at least. And he would altogether avoid the taxes if he could, but the new tax system was embedded in the price of everything. It was impossible to boycott.
Jerry Care went against everything Earnest stood for. It was literally handing out money to people unconditionally, how could he ever support that, or better yet, even partake in that? To cash the checks was, to Earnest, to indirectly be a supporter.
Unfortunately, though for Earnest, Jeremy wanted the money, and he knew it was a crime for his father to withhold it. Being within a month of graduation, Jeremy was playing hard ball knowing he’d soon be far away at college living independently.
Today was Monday, May 6th, and with this wave of white envelopes, a considerable pile was starting to form. It was late evening and Earnest was lounging at home in his favorite chair when the phone rang.
Earnest answered, speaking flat and straight, "This is Earnest Wells,"
The voice on the other ended responded matching Earnest's straightforwardness. It was a female with a bold, dispassionate voice, though trying to be cordial, "Hi Mr. Wells, my name is Jeannette with the North Carolina Department of Social Services. How are you?"
Earnest knew what this was about and he stepped outside.
"Yes, Jeannette, I am good. What can I help you with?"
"Our records here at the NCDSS are showing that you have not cashed a single check of the new Basic Income program. Under normal circumstances, we might not care, except that our records show that you have a son, Jeremy, who has not cashed his checks either, and this has raised some flags. Are you familiar with this, Mr. Wells?"
"Listen, Jeannette; we don't want to cash our checks."
"Thank you for sharing, Mr. Wells. I am sure you have your reasons for not cashing your check. Unfortunately, we've found that low deposit rates on checks for persons under the age of 21 is usually because of an external influence such as a parent withholding them for personal reasons. Mr. Wells, I hope you understand that withholding the check from your son is a punishable felony of up to 3-5 years."
Earnest feeling invaded and attacked, began to get irritated, firmly replying,
"Jeannette, this is extremely insulting you call me so late at night and begin attacking my parenting. You need to--"
Jeannette, trained for the visceral reaction quickly interrupted,
"Mr. Wells, I am sorry. We mean no insult but if Jeremy's checks are not cashed by the end of May we will have to send someone to inquire to him directly."
Earnest was fuming and paused holding the phone by his waist glaring into his yard with no particular focus.
"I hope you understand. Do you have any questions for me, Mr. Wells?"
Earnest pulled the phone back up to his ear, "Yeah, go to hell, Jeannette."
Earnest hung up the phone and stormed inside to the kitchen and screamed into the empty house, “I can’t believe this!!”
He sat down, fuming and staring dimly at the wall for a long while.
It was completely dark in the house now, Earnest was alone and depressingly sat at the kitchen table battling his pride, morals and the law. The hazy lighting from above made a shadow for every movement of his. He sat thinking about Sherrie, his deceased wife. She must be rolling in her grave, he thought.
Earnest grabbed a nearby pen and paper.
"Jeremy," he wrote on the paper,
"Today I am giving you two checks from February and March. At graduation, I will provide you with the checks from April and May. That's $4,000 and with June's check, $5,000. When I was your age, I worked full-time and still didn't see that kind of money.
It's essential you understand the value of money and how to manage it. That's why on June 1st, I am going to start charging you rent of $250/month to stay in my house and expect you to contribute to the costs of bills and groceries.
Expect another $250/month.
Earnest felt sad, but he knew his role as a father was to train an able man for the world. He pulled out two white envelopes and left them on the table next to the note and went to bed.
The following day Earnest awoke up to a response on the kitchen table.
The checks were gone.
Jeremy was nowhere to be found in the house, bothered, Earnest had his breakfast and went into work where the day didn't improve. Earnest had just arrived and seated himself in his swivel chair when Betsy walked in.
"I'm quitting," she began, sitting across from Earnest, "these old bones can't keep up anymore, and I am going to move closer to my son in Charlotte. There’s no reason for me to be sticking around here. You and I both know this isn't the job for me anymore."
His long desire coming true, Earnest was shocked he was upset. He slowly reclined in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head. He remained silent. Betsy was not the best, but she’d handled the admin for nearly 35 years, where would he start replacing her? Who would even hire her?
"Earnest, I know you are probably crushed, but my son tells me about this Google 635 software... or maybe it was 365... I don’t know, whatever it was, it might help with the workload for a while”
Earnest remained silent biting his cheek and pursing his lips.
Betsy, feeling uncomfortable exclaimed, "Earnest, can you just say something?"
"Betsy, what you're saying is a lot. I am just taking it in right now trying to figure out how I feel. You've been our admin since the beginning; it's been easy for me. I have heard of this Google software. I'll have to look at it. But, I am more concerned about you. Charlotte is competitive, and at your age, I don't see you getting a job in admin there."
"My Grandson just began kindergarten at a school there in the city," started Betsy, "and they need a teacher's assistant. They already said its mine if I want it. It's basically a volunteer position, but with Jerry Care, I'll manage. It's enough to cover rent, groceries, health insurance and utilities if I play it right. I am an aging woman, Earnest. I only spend a bit. This is what I want."
"Betsy, you might have ruined my day but I can't help but to be happy for you. You'll fit right in with kids. When are you done here?"
"At the end of the month," she spoke.
"I'll have a cake made up, let's talk more later," Earnest concluded the discussion.
Just as Betsy had made her way out of the office and back down the hall, Shawn's face appeared hanging in the doorway to Earnest’s office with a wide grin.
"Yes...?" spoke Earnest, eyeing Shawn suspiciously.
Shawn hurriedly ran to sit down in the chair across from Earnest, his body hanging out of the seat with his hands eagerly on the desk as he leaned in as he quietly questioned, "So, Betsy is out??"
Earnest feeling mildly invaded, and joked with some seriousness, "Are you stalking conversations in here? Do I need to move your office to the shed?"
"No, no, no man. I heard Betsy reciting 'I am quitting' at her desk this morning. I don't think she knew I was in the office. She's great and all, but I already mapped her job out, that Google Admin 365 Software could tackle 80% of her work. I'll manage onboarding, and the rest is details. This is big!" Shawn was now halfway leaned across Earnest's desk with eyes wide.
Earnest was both curious and a little worried as Shawn continued, "Listen, man, I'll set the thing up this month and work with Betsy to get it perfect, you don't even bat an eye, and by June our margins will be up $70,000!"
Shawn slowly reached out towards Earnest looking for a fist bump.
Earnest paused for a long while considering his words, then slowly raised his hand to meet Shawn's still hanging fist with his fist.
They fist bumped. Earnest smiled.
After work, Earnest was feeling surprisingly good but hadn't heard from Jeremy all day. He had texted him to see if he'd gone to school but never heard back. Earnest wasn't worried, he trusted Jeremy to follow through on his responsibilities so today Earnest chose to let himself have the moment and enjoy the drive home.
Earnest flicked on the radio.
".... and reports are showing that at the beginning of the fourth month of Jerry Care, the stock market is at its highest since 2027 with the tech and financial industries leading the way. Banks report seeing an immediate increase in mortgage payments and a significant uptick in credit applications. Grocers tout record sales! Tonight, at ten, we discuss the market. Fact or fiction?"
Earnest rolled his eyes, he was tired of Jerry Care being jammed in his face, he just wanted to enjoy the $70,000 margin bump his company had created.
He changed the channel to country music and sailed down the road.
Unfortunately, the relationship remained rocky for Earnest and Jeremy even through graduation in late June. There was limited communication between the two and what they had was kept mostly cordial to avoid any further interaction. Earnest kept his word and gave Jeremy the remaining checks at graduation, who then in return paid his father $1,000 for the living costs of May and June that he was now being charged.
Meanwhile, things at Wells & Son were improving swiftly. The surge in consumer cash paired with positive industry reports had homeowners spending with a little more confidence. Shawn had set up the Google Admin 365 Software, so Wells & Son had reached record margins, doing more with less. The best news was that they were hiring handymen again.
"Alright, this next guy coming in hasn't been employed for eight years cause of a hurt leg. He says he can still do the work. Just measure him up well for me Boss," instructed Shawn to Earnest. Having received multiple applications, Shawn and Earnest had just blocked out an entire afternoon for interviews.
"So, what have you been up to since 2022?" inquired Earnest to the man sitting in front of him. The man's name was Jimmy, probably in his 40s, perhaps 5'8", a bit of a belly, but clearly put in the effort to look nice for the day. He sported a heavy southern accent.
"Well, back in '22, I hurt my leg real bad on a job. I was carrying some cement, and th' thang just went like this," Jimmy motioned with his right arm in a contorted position, "once that happened I just got put on disability but th’ thangs never been the same. I still got a limp y'know. I like working, but if I took a 1099 job I'da have to give up my check, and with this bad leg I'd be the first guy fired in a junked economy. It made no sense to work."
"Hmm," Earnest nodded along.
"Really, boss. I never hired on again. I just spent the eight years doin' lil' jobs for neighbors. Now with this thousand bucks coming in every month, I am trying again. I just wanna work. It's all I ever wanted."
Earnest spoke, "We’ve got work for ya, Jimmy, but if you can’t keep up we’ll have to cut you, got it?"
Jimmy nodded, “Yes, for sure, sir.”
“Great,” Earnest escorted Jimmy to the door and returned to Shawn's office, "Interesting fellow, that Jimmy. Do we have any more for today, Shawn?"
"Sure do. One more. I think you know him. Should be here in 10 minutes," responded Shawn.
Earnest made his way back to his desk and shuffled through papers until he heard the next knock, "Don't hate me for this," said Shawn escorting in the next candidate.
It was Jeremy. Earnest's face fumbled, "Is this a joke!?" he shouted throwing his hands up.
Jeremy sat down and looked at his shoes, hesitated, and began speaking, "Dad, East Carolina University revoked my acceptance,” he paused, “my final grades for this quarter were too low. I want to work here under Shawn until January if I get accepted for Spring Admittance."
As Jeremy looked up, his words came flying at Earnest like a semi-truck crushing his whole. His skin began boiling while needles ran down his back. Earnest sat still chewing the side of his lip without speaking, staring away, not speaking a word.
Making a hopeful plea, Jeremy continued, "I know you are mad. It took me three days just to get out of bed. But getting denied has been a reality check. I was doing the math, and if I save $400 of my Jerry Care each month and work 30 hours a week here at $13/hr, I could pay for classes at the community college which would keep me on pace to graduate in four years. Plus, Shawn would be a good mentor."
Shawn slyly poked his head around the corner, "I'm no sucker for sweet-talking, but I'd say I could use a guy for my dirty work..." Shawn cleared his throat, "and we do have all these new handymen to look after..."
Confounded by both Jeremy and Shawn, Earnest began, "First off, Shawn, get the hell out of here! Second, Jeremy, I can't even be mad at you. I am disappointed. You screwed yourself. I want you to thrive and to be an able man. This doesn't hurt anyone but you."
Jeremy's indifferent excitement from the plan he had presented faded from his face as he was reminded that he wasn't going to college now. He sunk in his chair with a reaffirmed frown.
"Jeremy, this is going to sting for a long time. So much of life is how you respond when things don't go your way," Earnest paused, "it blows me away that it took you getting denied from college to take some ownership of your life, but I am happy to see it happen, it gives me hope you're not a total screwball."
Jeremy was shyly nodding in agreement, “I know. I want to do it on my own.”
Earnest got up from his chair and motioned to Jeremy, who also got up, “Jeremy, you paying for community classes is going to be an opportunity fully created by your own hard work and thinking, and nothing else. You’re going to make me so proud.”
Earnest stuck out his hand where he was met by Jeremy's hand and said: "Welcome to Wells & Son, son."