Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Time banking for community and economic development

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant

I’ve been wanting to do a post on time banking for years. It’s such an interesting idea, in theory. Time banking is based on the idea that everyone’s time has intrinsic value and that everyone has something of value to share with the community. One hour of work = one hour of work. If I do something for you for an hour, like walk your dog or proofread your resume, then I get a time credit I can give to someone else to do something for me for an hour, like give my back stairs a new coat of paint or give my kid a piano lesson.

Edgar Cahn is said to have come up with the idea for time banking in 1980. According to timebanks.org, he saw it as a way to recognize and reward civic engagement and restore community. Time banking builds the fabric of community by facilitating connections. It creates networks of support where people can ask for and offer help to and from each other. It empowers members of a community to help each other to build together the kind of place where they want to live. It seems like just the kind of tool an economic developer would want to have in their place-making toolkit. Doesn’t it?

In practice, however, it seems that local time banks rarely have much impact on the wider community, perhaps because they don’t tend to engage wide swaths of the community. Time banks—if they’re lucky—have hundreds of members in communities with tens of thousands of people. In order to participate in time banking you have to have, well, time. And, time can be hard to come by. Time banks tend to attract people who perceive themselves as people with free time to give to others, which, let’s face it, is a small, and, some would argue, shrinking, subset of the community.

So, for years I wrote time banking off as an interesting idea that didn’t seem to have enough cache to really engage and empower whole communities.

And then, a few months ago, I heard Stephen Dubner talking to presidential candidate Andrew Yang on Freakanomics about Yang’s vision for scaling up time banking and building an economy around people doing things for other people based on “digital social credits.” He envisions a sort of parallel economy where people build up social credits, like the way we build up airline miles or credit card points, and can trade them in not just for services from other individuals, but also for goods and services from businesses. He says, “Digital social credits are a new way to reward behaviors that we need more of in society. So right now, the monetary market does not recognize things that we know are crucial to humanity, like caregiving and raising children, volunteering in the community, arts and creativity, journalism, environmental sustainability. We’re getting less and less of those things because the market does not care about them. What I’m proposing is we create a new currency that then maps to various activities that we want to see more of.”

This isn’t just the “I’ll trade hours of tutoring for hours of plumbing” of typical time banking. What Yang envisions is a way of putting economic value on activities that we think are valuable, but that aren’t recognized by the traditional economy, things like revitalizing neighborhoods, raising healthy children, preserving the environment, and building strong families. Social credits recognize and reward that work; they give real, economic value to the important work that our current economy does not value. This is time banking writ large.

In typical time banks, members can only spend time credits on labor, specifically labor that builds community resources, provides personal support, furthers a charitable purpose, or remedies a social problem. And, the labor must be provided by someone else who is a member of their time bank.

Yang’s idea is to engage everyone in the nation. He wants to take all of that undervalued work and move it into the “real economy.” By doing that, he claims, we would give people access to more of the goods and services that they need but can’t now afford and we would boost morale by revaluing skills that the market no longer values—we would realign what the market values with what we as a society, as communities, value.

Yang’s time banking plan is bold. It’s really bold. And, since he’s running for president, it’s something he’s proposing on a national scale. In his version, the federal government would fund the exchange of social credits for retail goods and services. It’s a national plan; it’s not pitched at the local level.

But, it got me thinking that he’s on to something.

If the problem with employing time banking as a tool for community building in our economic development toolkits is that it’s too small time—that it doesn’t engage enough of the community—could we find a way to take Yang’s ideas and his fervor and apply them at the local level? What would that look like?

Could we come up with a way to engage, if not everyone, the majority of people and perhaps even businesses and governments in our communities? The more of the community we can engage, the stronger the community becomes (and the more resilient).

SevaExchange (a Silicon Valley Founder Institute portfolio company and B-corp) has developed a block chain app to manage time banking. It provides a technology-enabled currency for time banking. The app’s founders argue that it can be used to create new ways to incentivize the kinds of work that are undervalued by the monetary market. Of course, what it requires is widespread, localized adoption.

It’s true that, at the local level, we’re unlikely to be able to find the cash to move all of that undervalued work into the real economy (letting people trade social credits for retail goods and services) as Yang envisions, but if we could get enough of the community engaged and invested in an idea like digital social credits then perhaps we could find creative ways to approximate it in our own communities. E.g., maybe landowners could pay a portion of their property taxes with social credits and, in turn, allow tenants to pay a portion of their rent with social credits. Or maybe you could use your social credits for a small portion of the bill for goods or services with local businesses.

I’m just spitballing, but I’m sure some creative problem-solving people could put their heads together and come up with some truly innovative ways to make this work at a local level.

Because while Yang’s program would be national in scale, it’s greatest impacts would be at the local level, building community among neighbors and reminding us that the supportive relationships that make up a community are so important and so valuable.