Fifteen years ago, budget cuts were eliminating the funding for government social programs, creating shortages in basic human services. Edgar Cahn, a lawyer from the Washington, D.C. area came up with an unconventional idea — why not create a system that uses volunteer time as a type of currency? The people who have the least money sometimes have the most time. Using this approach, people could accumulate hours of service by contributing skills to each other and their community.
They can then “spend” these hours any way that they please – drawing from a pool of skills within their area. The amount of benefit received would equal the amount of time donated. Participants can search through a database of local talent and find the services that they need.
Time Banks USA provides a software infrastructure that enables communities to establish and administer their own time banking systems.
Stella Osorojos helped co-found a successful time-bank in Sante Fe. She says that “Because time banking exists alongside a cash economy, where we pay money for our plumbers, dentists, and accountants, people turn to the Time Bank for the smaller interactions that make us neighbors, friends, and ultimately communities.” This might include tasks like walking the dog, picking up kids from soccer practice, or cooking for someone who is sick. “These types of trades used to happen all the time and they forged bonds that were valuable because they were necessary to get along.”
In a cash-only economy, we tend to forget about the value of personal relations and cultivate a culture of isolation. When the economy was more robust, people used caterers for parties and landscapers for shoveling snow from driveways. Personal fitness trainers replaced friends at the gym and professional dog groomers took over the responsibility from the kid next door.
We can often forget the value of social ties and sometimes don’t even take the time to learn what our neighbors have to offer. Time banking breaks down some of these barriers and encourages people to meet and connect with other people in their community.
Time banks also help new business formation. They provide a low-pressure way for people to cultivate their skills and develop contact lists before they open doors to new customers. Volunteering as part of a time bank is a great way to get the word out and see if there is interest and demand from the community.
As with any grassroots effort, time banks can adjust to fit regional needs. In Japan, there is a strong tradition of assisting elderly parents. This has become a more difficult practice to maintain as families started to move apart due to the demands of work. In response to this growing problem, the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation developed a type of time banking by which a person could earn credits for taking care of an elderly person in their neighborhood and then apply those credits toward the care of one’s parents in a different part of the country. This system is available throughout the country – a simple software system maintains all of the necessary records.
Time banks are not a cure-all for society’s problems, but it does provide a better way for people to work together and provide mutual assistance. As a type of social technology, they are a complement to our existing money-based system – reducing the need for financial transactions but not eliminating them altogether.