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by Larry

November, 2010

Time Exchange Networks

Optimists tell us that "every cloud has a silver lining," whereas pessimists usually just do not see clouds that way. A number of recent monetary circumstances have severely tested the more rosy outlook: the global recession that began in 2007, followed promptly by the worst overall economic crisis since the first third of the last century, and the longest period of high unemployment our country has experienced in decades, underemployed plus the unemployed now estimated at over 50 million U.S. citizens and likely to remain a very high number for the next few years. Foreclosure rates are now also higher than at any time since the Great Depression.

Yet, while macroeconomic conditions have been dismal, a variety of smaller, underground economies have sprung up that hold promise. A number of these may turn out to offer something of lasting value and so could have a positive impact beyond simply helping people cope during the current hard times.

One example is the phenomenon of people exchanging their time and skills with one another in a cooperative spirit that leaves everyone a winner, helps folks meet their needs, builds camaraderie, trust, and self-worth, and does not require that one have the usual tender of the larger economy, money.

This has certainly been tried successfully before. Barter systems involving the trade of goods and services predate currency. Also, more than a few modern organizations, such as churches, have developed ways members can swap even professional talents with one another for mutual benefit. For instance, a physician in the congregation may treat the family of a financial consultant for "free" and might receive no-cost advice on his or her investments in return. Such arrangements are treated by the Internal Revenue Service as non-profit work and so have the added advantage that they are not taxed, as they potentially would be if money had changed hands.

In more rural settings, it has been and remains common for people to lend each other a hand. Nobody knows when conditions might be rough, so folks help each other out, knowing they may soon be on the receiving end of such neighborliness.

Barn raisings in New England are a well known way folks have banded together to complete needed projects that they themselves may get assistance with on another day.

Now quite a number of larger and more formal money-free exchanges have sprung up. For example, much of Nottinghamshire, England, is involved in a time bank/skills exchange in which no pounds or pence are required, but people give and receive security and legal advice or services, financial information, health services, utilities help, shopping assistance, consumer advice, and transportation aid. Not only useful due to economic concerns within the general consuming public, such exchanges are particularly valuable in an aging population, for whom they may be increasingly useful and popular. Time banks or exchanges offer not merely a way to get essential services without large incomes but also provide a sense of community, enhancing members' social networking.

Formal time banks or skills exchange networks exist in several places around the world as well as in many communities in the U.S. You may find them, for instance, in Madison, Milwaukee, or Ashland, WI, in New York City, Denver, CO, Portland, ME, as well as in Houston and San Antonio, TX, or in multiple other locations across a couple dozen U.S. states.

In a city with a time bank, a foreign language teacher who has trouble getting groceries could trade lessons for transportation to and from the supermarket or for assistance getting the shopping done and delivered. The opportunities for such reciprocally beneficial sharing of time and skills seem endless.

In my own area, we have the Austin Time Exchange Network (ATEN). Members can participate just as volunteers, donating their time and talents but not expecting anything in return, or can trade their accumulated hours of service for the needed time and talents of other members. On offer by the volunteers and time trading members are quite a wide array of skills or other responsible duties: photography; language lessons; financial advice; legal assistance; health services; childcare; housecleaning; yard work; home repair; moving help; shopping assistance; and much more.

Time banks meet several basic needs and help their members feel good about themselves and their new friends in the exchanges. As added payback, they are local and so reduce the pollution that might be generated by hauling in supplies and products from distant places. They make for a richer, more united society and solve real problems directly, without having to get "help" from the relatively dysfunctional governments in state or national capitals. Such exchanges also decrease reliance on the much more risky and wasteful boom, bubble, bust cycles of the macroeconomic landscape. All things considered, then, it looks like they are here to stay, and that is a good thing! In fact, it is one of the many reasons I reflect and give thanks in this holiday period.

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