We all know the saying “time is money.” In some American communities, time literally does have a value. About 200 communities around the United States participate in “time banking,” a system where people trade time and build credits within communities by performing various helpful tasks — transporting an item, walking a dog, cleaning up a yard, providing a ride to the doctor and so on. The idea was championed by Edgar Cahn, a law professor and anti-poverty activist in the mid-1990s as a way to strengthen communities.
Cahn, a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, was looking for new ways to fight poverty at a time when social programs were struggling. He wrote, “Americans face at least three sets of problems: growing inequality in access by those at the bottom to the most basic goods and services; increasing social problems stemming from the need to rebuild family, neighborhood and community; and a growing disillusion with public programs designed to address these problems.”
Time banks may sound utopian, but they’ve taken hold in average American communities like Brattleboro, Vt. In Brattleboro, more than 300 residents have exchanged 64,000 hours of mutual work over the past eight years. The Brattleboro Time Bank was started by two graduate students with 30 members in 2009 and has grown each year. One of its members, Amanda Witman, was a 40-year-old single mother of four with a large house that needed repairs.
She was overwhelmed, and friends urged her to join the time trade. “I’d hoped one or two members would respond,” Witman said. “But a bunch of people ended up offering assistance. [One] fixed holes in the wall and replaced my water-pressure tank. Other people hauled a bunch of stuff to the dump, replaced ancient wiring and helped me plant a vegetable garden.”
In exchange, Witman performed jobs that fit her schedule, like baby-sitting or cooking meals. Randy Bright, a 49-year-old handyman on the other end of the exchange, said the program has expanded his social life and even helped him financially, as it helped him develop a referral network for his energy-efficiency business.