News & Politics

Time Banks for Katrina Survivors?

'Time banking' acknowledges that everyone can contribute a way to help.
The word combo for this week is ''time banking,'' which has taken on new relevance in light of the president's speech last week in which he laid out his plan for rebuilding the Gulf Coast region.

Valued exchange in ''time banking'' is measured in ''time dollars',' which are available to anyone with time, energy and outside-the-labor-market skills. This can mean baby-sitting, cooking, sewing, driving the sick and shut-ins to doctor appointments, handyman work, etc.

The exchange rate: one hour of service provided to another time bank member, or to the community at large, earns one ''time dollar.'' The concept is elementary. A large or small group of people establish a time bank and appoint a ''time broker,'' who coordinates exchanges between members. In 1997, there were 44 time banks worldwide. Now there are more than 300 representing 15 different countries -- including 65 in the United States, with 25,000 members exchanging an average of 30,000 hours a year.

According to Auta Main, executive director of New England Time Banks, that translates into $12.5 million in market value.

Last year, Time Banks USA was established. I'm on the board of directors. I don't get paid for it but that's not why I agreed to join. I joined because Edgar Cahn, the creator of ''time dollars'' (and a founder of Legal Services as well as several law schools in the D.C. area), is a trusted friend.

But more importantly, I believe in the four core principles of time banking: assets, redefining work, reciprocity and social capital.

In time banking, assets are defined by a simple acknowledgment that everyone has something to offer, whether it's house cleaning or the gift of making people laugh.

Redefining work means that, in contrast to market logic, building communal ties is real work.

Reciprocity is perhaps the most important core values because in time banking those who receive help earn it by giving service in return.

I hope able-minded and bodied Katrina survivors are the first hired in the rebuilding process; not only to give people ''jobs'' but to heal the ''charity wounds'' that always afflict charity recipients.

Reciprocity in time banking goes beyond market morality, recognizing that conventional charity is often done in a dehumanizing way with little contact between the helper and the helped.

Reciprocity is crucial in preventing the helpers from developing an unhealthy and divisive sense of superiority toward those who've been helped, as was the case with America's rebuilding of Europe after World War II (those ungrateful Europeans!).

The fourth and final core value is social capital, which is the immeasurable wealth built by tying people into networks of social cooperation.

Cahn raises an apt question: ''It takes a village to raise a child, but what does it take to raise a village?''

Up close and personal, Cahn witnessed Legal Services and other government-funded social service organizations getting their budgets axed in the 1980s in the path of Reaganomics. He began to ask why the people most affected by this didn't go to bat for these organizations. Eventually, he realized that most social service workers don't have a true communal relationship with their clients -- only a market relationship.

That led him to the idea of weaving time-banking principles into the very fabric of established agencies and institutions, something that has reaped benefits wherever it's been tried, mostly by transforming the relationship between a client and a helping professional from one of subordination and dependency to one of contribution, mutuality and parity.

Given the ''compassionate'' conservative attack on America's social safety net in recent years and the numerous full-time jobs in our economy that don't pay workers enough to meet basic needs, time banking is one way for the working poor and social service agencies to sustain marginal communities, ripped apart by market forces and apathetic politicians.

For more info on Time Banking, go to www.timedollar.org.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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