Time banks

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Time Banking refers to a pattern of reciprocal service exchange which uses units of time as currency and is an example of an alternative monetary system. A Time Bank, also known as a Service Exchange, is a community which practices time banking. The unit of currency, always valued at an hour's worth of any person's labor, used by these groups has various names, but is generally known as a Time Dollar in the U.S. and a Time Credit in the U.K. Time Banking is primarily used to provide incentives and rewards for work such as mentoring children, caring for the elderly, being neighborly—work usually done on a volunteer basis—which a pure market system devalues. Essentially, the "time" one spends providing these types of community services earns "time" that one can spend to receive services.[1] Communities therefore use time banking as a tool to forge stronger intra-community connections, a process known as "building social capital". Time Banking had its intellectual genesis in the U.S. in the early 1980s.[2] By 1990, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had invested US $1.2 million to pilot Time Banking in the context of senior care. Today, 26 countries have active Time Banks. There are 108 Time Banks active in the U.K.[3] and 53 officially recognized Time Banks in the U.S.[4]

Origins and philosophy

According to its creator, Edgar Cahn, Time Banking had its roots in a time when "money for social programs [had] dried up"[5] and no dominant approach to social service in the U.S. was coming up with creative ways to solve the problem. He would later write that "Americans face at least three interlocking 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"[6] and that "the crisis in support for efforts to address social problems stems directly from the failure of . . . piecemeal efforts to rebuild genuine community."[7] In particular Cahn focused on the top-down attitude prevalent in social services. He believed that one of the major failings of many social service organizations was their unwillingness to enroll the help of those people they were trying to help.[8] He called this a deficit based approach to social service, where organizations view the people they were trying to help only in terms of their needs, as opposed to an asset based approach, which focuses on the contributions towards their communities that everyone can make.[9] He theorized that a system like Time Banking could "[rebuild] the infrastructure of trust and caring that can strengthen families and communities."[7] He hoped that the system "would enable individuals and communities to become more self-sufficient, to insulate themselves from the vagaries of politics and to tap the capacity of individuals who were in effect being relegated to the scrap heap and dismissed as freeloaders."[10]

As a philosophy, Time Banking also known as Time Trade[11] is founded upon five principles, known as Time Banking's Core Values:[12]

  • Everyone is an asset,
  • Some work is beyond a monetary price,
  • Reciprocity in helping,
  • Social networks are necessary,
  • A respect for all human beings.

Ideally, Time Banking builds community. Time Bank members sometimes refer to this as a return to simpler times when the community was there for its individuals. An interview at a time bank in the Gorbals neighborhood of Glasgow revealed the following sentiment:

[the time bank] involves everybody coming together as a community . . . the Gorbals has never--not for a long time--had a lot of community spirit. A way back, years ago, it had a lot of community spirit, but now you see that in some areas, people won't even go to the chap next door for a some sugar . . . that's what I think the project's doing, trying to bring that back, that community sense . . .[13]

Time Banking and the Time Bank

Time Bank members earn credit in Time Dollars for each hour they spend helping other members of the community. Services offered by members in Time Banks include: Child Care, Legal Assistance, Language Lessons, Home Repair, and Respite Care for caregivers, among other things.[14] Time Dollars earned are then recorded at the Time Bank to be accessed when desired. A Time Bank can theoretically be as simple as a pad of paper, but the system was originally intended to take advantage of computer databases for record keeping.[10] Some Time Banks employ a paid coordinator to keep track of transactions and to match requests for services with those who can provide them.[15] In other Time Banks select a member or a group of members to handle these tasks.[16] Various organizations provide specialized software to help local Time Banks manage exchanges. The same organizations also often offer consulting services, training, and other materials for individuals or organizations looking to start Time Banks of their own.[17]

Example services offered by Time Bank members[14]

Child care Legal assistance Language lessons
Home repair Respite care Account management
Writing Odd jobs Office/business support
Tutoring Driving instruction Delivery

The mission of an individual Time Bank influences exactly which services are offered. In some places, Time Banking is adopted as a means to strengthen the community as a whole. Other Time Banks are more oriented towards social service, systems change, and helping underprivileged groups. In some Time Banks, both are acknowledged goals.[18]

The Time Dollar

The Time Dollar is the fundamental unit of exchange in a Time Bank, equal to one hour of a person's labor. In traditional Time Banks, one hour of one person's time is equal to one hour of another's. Time Dollars are earned for providing services and spent receiving services. Upon earning a Time Dollar, a person does not need to spend it right away: they can save it indefinitely. However, since the value of a Time Dollar is fixed at one hour, it resists inflation and does not earn interest. In these ways it is intentionally designed to differ from the traditional fiat currency used in most countries.[19] Consequently, it does little good to hoard Time Dollars and, in practice, many Time Banks also encourage the donation of excess Time Dollars to a community pool which is then spent for those in need or on community events.


Some criticisms of Time Banking have focused on the Time Dollar's inadequacies as a form of currency and as a market information mechanism. Frank Fisher of MIT predicted in the 80s that such a currency "would lead to the kind of distortion of market forces which had crippled Russia's economy."[20] To this day, Time Banks in the U.S. must avoid setting any monetary worth on their Time Dollars, lest it become taxable income to the IRS.

Dr. Gill Seyfang's study of the Gorbals Time Bank—one of the few studies of Time Banking done by the academic community—listed several other non-theoretical problems with Time Banking. The first is the difficulty of communicating to potential members exactly what makes Time Banking different, or "getting people to understand the difference between Time Banking and traditional volunteering."[21] She also notes that there is no guarantee that every person's needs will be provided for by a Time Bank by dint of the fact that the supply of certain skills may be lacking in a community.[22]

One of the most stringent criticisms of Time Banking is its organizational sustainability. While some member-run Time Banks with relatively low overhead costs do exist,[16] others pay a staff to keep the organization running. This can be quite expensive for smaller organizations and without a long-term source of funding, they may fold.[23]

Examples of Time Banking

Gorbals Time Bank study

In 2004, Dr. Gill Seyfang published a study in the Community Development Journal about the effects of a Time Bank located in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland, "an inner-city estate characterized by high levels of deprivation, poverty, unemployment, poor health and low educational attainment."[24] The Gorbals Time Bank is run by a local charity with the intent to combat the social ills that face the region.[22] Seyfang concluded that the Time Bank was effective at "building community capacity" and "promoting social inclusion."[25] She highlights the Time Bank's success at "[re-stitching] the social fabric of the Gorbals."[22] by "[boosting] engagement in existing projects and activities" in a variety of projects including a community safety network, a library, a healthy living project, and a theatre.[22] She writes that "the time bank had enabled people to access help they otherwise would have had to do without," help which included home repair, gardening, a funeral, and tuition paid in Time Dollars to a continuing education course.[26]

Using time banks to start cooperatives

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See Also


This page originally adapted from the Wikipedia page: [2]

  1. Seyfang, Gill. "Time banks: rewarding community self-help in the inner city?" Community Development Journal39.1 (January 2004): 63.
  2. Cahn, Edgar S. No More Throw Away People. Washington, DC: Essential Books, 2004.
  3. Accessed August 14, 2009.
  4. Time Banks Directory,
  5. Cahn, Edgar S. No More Throw Away People. Washington, DC: Essential Books, 2004. xix.
  6. Cahn, Edgar S. "Time dollars, work and community: from 'why?' to 'why not?'" Futures 31 (1999): 499.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cahn, Edgar S. "Time dollars, work and community: from 'why?' to 'why not?'" Futures 31 (1999): 507.
  8. ibid. 505
  9. Cahn, Edgar S. No More Throw Away People. Washington, DC: Essential Books, 2004. 87.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Cahn, Edgar S. No More Throw Away People. Washington, DC: Essential Books, 2004. 5-6.
  11. Time Trade NZ
  12. The Five Core Values
  13. Seyfang. G. (2004) ‘Time Banks: Rewarding community self-help in the inner city?’ Community Development Journal 39 (1): 66
  14. 14.0 14.1 [1].Accessed May 30, 2008
  15. e.g., the Hour Exchange Portland
  16. 16.0 16.1 e.g., the Cape Ann Time Bank
  17. In the U.K.: TimeBanking UK; in the U.S.: TimeBanks USA, Portland Time Bank
  18. Seyfang, Gill. "Re-stitching the social fabric: one favour at a time" Town and Country Planning, September 1, 2001.
  19. Cahn, Edgar S. No More Throw Away People. Washington, DC: Essential Books, 2004: 59-77.
  20. Cahn, Edgar S. No More Throw Away People. Washington, DC: Essential Books, 2004: 6.
  21. Seyfang. G. (2004) ‘Time Banks: Rewarding community self-help in the inner city?’ Community Development Journal 39 (1): 69
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 ibid.
  23. Seyfang. G. (2004) ‘Time Banks: Rewarding community self-help in the inner city?’ Community Development Journal 39 (1): 69.
  24. Seyfang. G. (2004) ‘Time Banks: Rewarding community self-help in the inner city?’ Community Development Journal 39 (1): 64
  25. ibid. 67-68.
  26. ibid. 68