Time banks, economic microcosms based on the exchange of services rather than currency, probably won't replace monetary exchange anytime soon. They are, however, already changing communities and lives in a big way. And they're definitely on the rise.
The premise of time banking is that by fairly exchanging services with others, everyone can provide for and enrich their community. If your neighbor on the left needs a lawn mowed, your neighbor on the right needs a cake baked, and you need an oil change, you might be able to strike a deal with one another, even if you don't have the money to pay for the services. To create these interactions between people with specialized needs, who may never have otherwise met, communities need an infrastructure. This infrastructure has arrived.
Time currencies, invisible and non-taxable, are the units of time exchange. Each time bank service has its own name for the currency, but, in every case, one hour of one kind of work has the same value as one hour of any other kind of work. Most services utilize the Internet, are localized, and are funded by a combination of foundation grants and individual donations.
Edgar Cahn, a former civil rights attorney, is the most influential figure in the time banking movement. Cahn had a life changing experience at the age of 44, when he suffered a debilitating heart attack. During his recovery, he began thinking about how working 80 hours a week had affected his relationships with his community and loved ones, and imagining the awful effects of medical emergencies on the uninsured and underinsured.
In the 1980s, after his recovery, Cahn began writing and speaking about these ideas. The solution he devised was time banking, an alternative economic model that would level the playing field of (monetary) income inequality and promote community. In 1996, Cahn brought the concept to Maine, where a pilot time bank was launched in 1998.
Cahn's Time Dollar networks, or similar time banks, now exist in every state in the U.S., as well as Canada, Western Europe, and Japan.143 time banks exist in the U.K., with a total membership that exceeds 5,000. Time For Health, a bank with a health care focus, has been so effective that the U.K.'s National Health Service has commissioned a study on how it works. Masko Kubota, a Japanese citizen from Seizken Island, began a time bank in 1999, five years after flying to the United States to meet with Edgar Cahn. She has translated Cahn's book, No More Throw-Away People , into Japanese, and is still active in the Seizken time bank. Similar independent networks created by communities interested in increasing their social capital also exist. TimeBucks is one such network, and has large communities operating in Seattle, WA and Portland, OR, as well as communities in Austin, TX and Minneapolis, MN.
Many time banking advocates believe that capitalism destroys social capital and time banking presents an opportunity to reclaim it. Radicals take this conclusion one step further, claiming that time banking is a form of "grass roots globalism," challenging and providing alternatives to corporate globalization.
Because equal pay is offered for equal time, time banking has positive implications for women and people of color, whose work has historically gone under-compensated in the market economy. In fact, Spain's time banking movement's slogan was initially, "Sharing: Promoting the Equality of Time Among Men and Women." As was Edgar Cahn's original intent, time banks have been widely used to provide medical care to the uninsured and underinsured. Auta Main, executive director of the New England Time Dollar banks, says, "Many of our members are the working poor. They're making too much money to be eligible for many free services, but they don't get health insurance through their jobs. So we decided to target healthcare professionals and market to them." She adds that over 50 medical professionals are connected to the New England network.
Cahn's newest challenge is creating accessibility for disenfranchised groups and increasing bank leaders' awareness of race and class issues in time banking.
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