Local Peace Economy

Are You Tired of Banks, Credit Cards, and Debt? Consider a System of Trading Time Instead of Money

Hour by hour, time banking is creating healthier communities.

Photo Credit: Quality Stock Arts / Shutterstock

We live in a capitalistic society. Banks are everywhere, and it often seems like cash and credit are required to live. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. And it can sometimes seem like economic inequality is ubiquitous.

But around the world, people are using a system of exchange that requires something everyone is, for the most part, given equally, every day: Time.

How do you trade or exchange time? Through a time bank. At its most basic, you spend an hour doing something for someone in your time banking community, and you then receive a time banking credit of one hour to spend on something you need. For example, if you spend an hour raking your neighbor’s yard, you then have an hour to spend, for example, on childcare or car repair. It’s an hour for an hour. The idea is simple, and it’s growing.

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Take, for instance, Rushey Green Time Bank, based in South East London. It’s a connected group of 535 people, with offshoot projects that include the Wild Cat Wilderness community garden of another 400-plus people, and the FoodCycle Lewisham project with another 100. 

The Rushey Green Time Bank was very small when it started almost 20 years ago, explains its director, Philippe Granger, when a doctor wanted to offer something else to his patients beyond prescription drugs—especially for those suffering from isolation, bereavement and loss of work. “Normally, a doctor prescribes pills,” in those cases, says Granger. “But what he thought would be better would be to integrate the patients into the community.”

Rushey Green Time Bank started in a health center, in a part of London with more buildings than green space. It’s an area of high unemployment, single parents and pensioners.

“What we’ve experienced in the past six to seven years is a rise in mental health issues. I think everywhere on the planet, mental health is coming up because life is becoming very stressful,” says Granger, explaining that people in their mid-30s through 40s often have depression, but that’s used as an “umbrella word.”

“We’re not healers. We’re not doctors. We don’t promise if your body is broken we can fix it. But we can help manage your condition. You have a community around you and you have support. If you have a broken leg, and you’re alone, that’s tough. But if you’re in a group, you have support. In that way, it slows down the ill effects.”

“I love to see people in the gutter being made well,” he adds.

In the case of a broken leg, that time banking community can help with things like errands, walking your dog, or cleaning the house. You, in turn, might make phone calls for a local organization, or teach someone how to read.

Mashi Blech, director of the ArchCare Time Bank in New York City, agrees. ArchCare is a part of the Archdiocese of New York, and the time bank is sponsored by its health care ministry. Blech has been working on time banking for 30 years, and ArchCare Time Bank now has more than 1,500 individual members and more than 80 member organizations, with 40 different languages spoken.

“Here in New York, life can be quite stressful,” says Blech. “People can feel quite isolated and lonely.”

“Social isolation is a top cause for early death and a higher indicator for early death than cigarette smoking,” says Kim Hodge, founder of the Michigan Alliance of Timebanks and the Pontiac SUN Time Bank. People need to feel needed, she says, and time banking lets them give and receive in a healthy way.

ArchCare launched an initiative that noted while many of their clients were getting good medical care, they were still depressed and losing sense of belonging to a community, often as a result of aging. Blech reports that according to their evaluations, people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who use the time bank are reporting improvements in their physical and mental health. “That’s pretty exciting,” she says, noting that at that age, to show improvement is huge.

Granger says time banking is looked at differently around the world. In Greece, for example, with their economic crises, people have been time banking and exchanging out of economic necessity. In Detroit, it functions the same way, whereas in other parts of Michigan, it is beginning to be integrated more into support networks for the elderly and disabled, and those leaving local hospitals. There’s a massive time bank in Russia, Granger says, with 2,500 members, where, “It’s not political, it’s caring for the elderly.” In Spain, time banks are smaller groups of people working to be more resilient. And in Finland, the time bank charges people a small tax in time credits that are then transferred to an “ethical economic actor of choice in the Helsinki Timebank"—a food cooperative, for example.

And in the U.S., he says, some time banks are thriving, yet each is different. In Long Beach and Los Angeles, he describes them as “more arty,” and “filled with people who want to turn the system upside down.”

“You do your work according to the context. I think they are all valid systems, so it’s not about financial poverty. It’s more emotional, social poverty.”

Rushey Green doesn’t exchange time credits for goods. Rather, it stresses exchanging time and connections with people: social interaction and helping each other out. “It’s about community resilience. Helping each other out doesn’t have a financial equivalent. It’s not just survival. Survival in a way is negative, and it implies life is hopeless. Time banking brings life and happiness and fun. It’s not survival. It’s about living.”

And time banking does make living easier. In ArchCare, 69 percent of its time bank members earn below $25,000 a year, in New York City, where the cost of living is high.

“We know the capitalist system isn’t working, and we’re all trying to find a way out of it. Time banking is another way of doing things,” Granger adds. But to get, for example, an electric company to accept time banking credits would be a revolution.

Until then, Granger recommends managing and benefiting from both systems. You can live in multiple systems, he says, “without being an awful rich bastard.”

He cautions against looking to time banking as a solution to all of capitalism’s ills. “This is part of the relationship breakdown in life. We can exert power over the other person and destroy them for the sake of our idea. We’ve got to be careful how we go about it.”

He also points out that many of Rushey Green's members, who are elderly, “couldn’t care less about capitalism. They have a few years left. They just want to have a good time.”

Rushey Green Time Bank is also involved in a neighborhood discount card, with 3,000 members, that local time bank members and others receive, which enables them to get a discount from 160 local businesses. It encourages people to shop locally and support their community. “We’re trying to revive and help small [businesses] to keep going.”

Still, 75 percent of time banks that start don’t exist after a few years, according to Hodge, due to volunteer organizers getting burned out. “You need a skilled organizer type to raise funds,” to hire a paid staffer to keep it going.

“It won’t happen on its own,” she adds.

Granger says time banking is a part of a greater global shift. “Time banking is part of a rich tapestry of doing life differently, and fostering mutual aid. That in itself will reach out to a number of people and thus play a part in transforming our world. It sure needs it.”

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Valerie Vande Panne is an Independent Media Institute writing fellow who contributes to Columbia Journalism Review and Reuters news service, among other outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times, and the former news editor of High Times magazine. She is the founder of Blackbird Literacy, an organization providing books to residents and literacy programs in Detroit. Connect with her on Twitter @asktheduchess.