Lori Hutchins, 30, from South Portland, Maine is self-employed and has fallen on harder times since the recession. Over the last couple of years, in order to obtain essential paid-for services such as healthcare, she has used Hours Exchange Portland.
Time banks such as these give credits, for the hours you spend working for the community – raking leaves or driving around the elderly for example – which can then be exchanged for services rather than paying cash.
“When the economy gets tough, things really change. I offer my events planning skills in exchange for healthcare. I could pay for insurance, but I would rather save that money for repairs on my house. With unemployment levels where they are, for some people even paying $20 per doctor’s visit is too much,” said Ms Hutchins.
Of Hours Exchange Portland’s 755 active members, 535 have joined since 2008 and nearly 60 per cent earn under $30,000 a year. Over three quarters of its members are women.
Orion Breen, a co-ordinator, said that while the idea of time banks started off as an initiative driven by the notion of reciprocity and about building a community through social capital, over the past few years for many it has become a means by which to save costs and receive necessary services – from mechanics and plumbers to doctors and babysitters.
Health, education and transportation were the time bank’s top service categories exchanged in 2011 by number of hours.
Ed Collom, associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine said that against a backdrop of declining income and high unemployment, time banks or other localised exchange and trading systems (LETs) provide economic empowerment.
According to his research there are 128 time banks in the US with a total of 25,000 members, however there are many more grassroots efforts that are overlooked. Michael Bloomberg has strived to promote volunteerism throughout New York City as mayor and in addition to the one site existing in each of the five boroughs, there are plans to open 25 more within the next year.
“As society begins to develop their thinking about what’s wrong, it looks to what is right and that is a currency that honours the capacity of every human being to give, embody kind of values that this country ought to move towards,” Mr Collom said.
“Occupy Wall Street groups have approached time banks because of a desire to create a more equitable system of distribution and an economy that does not simply increase privilege and disparities,” he said.
Time banking had its intellectual genesis in the US in the early 1980s and in1995 Edgar Cahn founded TimeBanks USA and trademarked the concept.
“It sends a message that every human being is a producer and needs to be enlisted in the workforce to build a community, and to help each other,” said Mr Cahn. “Since the recession began, we’ve seen requests for start-up kits double in volume. Their chief function is as barter currency to provide a market when market is down,” he added.<
There are 300 active TimeBanks in 26 countries across the world and over 1,000,000 hours of service are exchanged through TimeBanks each year.
But Jon Chalfant, who exchanged his home repair services for healthcare, was less upbeat about the effectiveness of time banks. “Professional services are high in demand and less available. I have found it hard for people to do things for me, like get legal advice, which wasn’t available. It isn’t the non-cash economy that people dream of, but I still have hope.”