Forget Bitcoins, what about time as currency?

Time banking, an old idea, is making a comeback in the digital age

Carmen Barbosa teaches a knitting class at a time bank in Washington Heights.
Janet Charles

NEW YORK — Carmen Barbosa used to work in a Bronx factory stitching bathrobes designed by Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers for $8 an hour. The factory closed five years ago. Now Barbosa teaches a knitting class at a recreation center in Washington Heights on Friday mornings from 10 until noon, for which she receives two time credits per class. She has more than 650 hours logged in her time bank account.

Time banks are organizations that treat time as a currency; in place of money, members earn, accumulate and spend time credits. These banks have been around since the 1980s, but they have become more popular since the start of the recession in 2008. There are now more than 300 time banks in the U.S, located everywhere from Appalachia to Oakland, and run by institutions ranging from art galleries to retirement centers to hospitals. Time banking is also flourishing online, with websites attempting to adapt an old-fashioned idea of neighborly favors for a digital generation. “There’s a lot of unemployed folks and a lot of need, and if there was ever a time that this makes sense, it would be now,” says Edgar Cahn, a 78-year-old former staffer in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the founder of time banking.

Barbosa, 75, is a member of the largest time bank in the country, coordinated by the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. Founded in 2006, it now has more than 3,000 members. Time bankers teach classes — current offerings include tai chi, knitting, stress management and calligraphy. They also cook, clean, buy each other groceries, tutor, fix computers, pet-sit and lay tile. No money is ever exchanged. They offer one another their time, measured in hour-long units. All labor is created equal: An hour spent balancing a checkbook is no different than an hour cleaning a toilet. “Everyone’s time is worth the same,” says Mashi Blech, the founder and director of the VNSNY time bank.

Blech sees time banking as a community-building tool rather than an economic system. More than half of the members of the VNSNY time bank make less than $15,000 a year. Many are elderly, recent immigrants, or have no family nearby. Blech does not worry about maintaining a balanced budget — members can go into debt or accumulate as many time credits as they please. Her primary concern is getting as many people to participate in the time bank as possible. When a man who had both legs amputated joined the time bank, he was expecting just to receive visitors. “But he had a great phone manner,” Blech says, so he was assigned to call members with scheduling changes and birthday wishes.

For some members, the time bank offers a functional alternative to money, at least in certain cases. “I’m saving up my hours. You hear stories about people who get old and have no one to take care of them. I don’t have to worry. If I ever got sick all I’d have to do is call the time bank,” says Cathy Sadowski, 61, a VNSNY time banker who lives alone in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

One critique of time banking is that it degrades acts of generosity to an IOU. But traditional charity, Blech points out, rarely leads to sustained relationships. Communities don’t just enrich lives; they can save them. In his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” the political scientist Robert Putnam writes that when a person joins a group, her chance of dying over the next year is cut by half.

Barbosa had knee surgery two years ago. She met Maria Aristy, 64, another Washington Heights resident, in knitting class. “The yarn united us,” Aristy says. She stayed with Barbosa overnight when she had to go to the emergency room and escorted her to all of her medical appointments. After Barbosa recovered, they started doing everything together — going to museums, seeing plays. They stopped calling in their hours to Blech and her staff, unable to say for certain who was giving and who was receiving.

The history of time banking

In 1832, philanthropist Robert Owen founded the National Equitable Labour Exchange, which he held at the Royal Bazaar in London. People arrived with homemade goods, which were evaluated based on how long it had taken to produce them. (A 10-hour note is preserved at the British Museum). The Exchange didn’t last — there were too many products that no one wanted.

Edgar Cahn first conceived of time banking while recovering from a heart attack in the early ’80s. “I was lying in a hospital bed and a doctor told me that 60 percent of my heart was destroyed and I could expect to have two hours of each day I could function,” Cahn says. “I thought about what it felt like to be useless and I began saying to myself, ‘How do we put useless people together?’” In 1986, he published a paper through the London School of Economics titled “Service Credit: A New Currency for the Welfare State.” After it came out, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation decided to fund six time banks, scattered across the U.S., and asked Cahn to implement them. One of the grant recipients, a Brooklyn-based organization called Eldercare, hired Mashi Blech to be the program coordinator. It was her first introduction to time banking.  

Cahn believes that we can use time banking to improve civic engagement and decrease government spending: An elderly person who has someone to lend an arm on an icy walk or check the fine print on prescriptions is less likely to need hospital care. Cahn’s projects have received political support from both liberals seeking new tactics for providing social welfare and small-government conservatives (the IRS has ruled that time credits cannot be taxed). “The Thatcher government was very supportive. The Cameron government has been very supportive,” Cahn says. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You’re a liberal, how did you come up with such a sensible idea?’” Joyce Berry, the Commissioner on Aging under George H. W. Bush, allocated federal funding for service exchange programs.

According to Cahn, time banking allows for a more efficient use of our skills: Most people are paid for just one particular kind of labor, even if they’ve also spent decades practicing a hobby. Ten years of piano lessons doesn’t seem like such a waste of time if it can somehow be exchanged for having a document translated. With time, Cahn says, there’s no embezzlement, stealing or swindling; small communities are closely policed, lowering the risk of freeloaders. Most large time banks have at least one paid employee –— the VNSNY time bank has seven — but the cost of operating a time bank, Cahn says, can be as low as $1.50 for each hour of service provided. Critics have said that the necessity for paid staffers belies an obvious flaw in time banking — it requires money to sustain itself. But Cahn says his idea was never to create a wholly different economy, but to validate the kinds of people and labor that the monetary economy does not. They are, he says, a cost-efficient way of offering assistance to those who have lost unemployment benefits or have been pushed to the sidelines of the economy. He helped start a time bank for recently released inmates so they could gain professional experience and meet potential references as they looked for stable jobs. “It can significantly soften the impact if developed as a complement to the monetary economy,” Cahn says. “It redefines those persons who the government has decided are unproductive.” 

There is something old-fashioned about time banking, as Cahn imagines it. He thinks it’s preferable to ask a neighbor for a favor than to pay someone many thousands of miles away. “It works best in small clusters,” Cahn says, and among people who have a pre-established sense of kinship.

While old-fashioned, Cahn’s idea continues to appeal to members of the digital generation, whose community also comprises a far-flung group of people they communicate with online. Morea Steinhauer, 29, a wedding photographer and photojournalist living in Battery Park, joined the VNSNY time bank when she moved to New York from Minnesota last year. She has taught an 87-year-old woman down the street how to use her first smartphone and cat-sat for another member in the neighborhood, who has since become a good friend. “It’s just really nice to meet your neighbors,” she says.

Time banking 2.0

There are several different time banking websites, including hOur world and Ominui. But the glossiest and most successful site so far has been Time Republik, co-founded by two childhood friends from Lugano, Switzerland, Gabriel Donati and Karim Varini. The site launched in September and now has more than 10,000 members, exchanging skills ranging from dental cleaning to plumbing.

Time Republik allows for searches by skill and by location: One can look for someone to give oboe lessons over Skype or a neighbor to offer a ride to the airport. Unlike VNSNY, Time Republik forbids debt. Members are given five hours when they open accounts and can earn additional half-hours by inviting others to the site. All skills are worth the same; what matters is the time it takes to deliver them. “If I look at my life and think, ‘Who was more important, Alexander Fleming, who discovered antibiotics, or Beethoven?’ it’s hard to define who’s more valuable than who,” says Donati, who works as a musician and graphic designer. One Time Republik member, a Swiss economist, went to another member’s house to do her ironing.

However, the great majority of the work exchanged on Time Republik takes place only online and is, for that reason, unlikely to foster the kinds of relationships where members might spend a day in each other’s company without tracking hours at all.

“We thought that the people interested would be cash-strapped, people who need alternatives from the economic system. What happened was the exact opposite. It’s a lot of high-skilled people with degrees,” says Donati. There are many business consultants, life coaches, voice-over artists, art critics and psychologists on the site. Members have the option to post their resumes, and some have used the site to build their client base as they start a new career — doing work for time is more prudent than doing work for free. Donati, for example, designed some posters for people he met on Time Republik who offered to pay him for their next project.

Before they launched Time Republik, Donati and Varini, who works for a hedge fund, interviewed the leaders of 100 time banks worldwide. They found that the old model was too parochial and too closely resembled volunteerism. “You ask a kid to volunteer, they look at you like you’re 300 years old,” Donati says. On their site, time banking becomes a form of networking. Time Republik combines the professionalism of LinkedIn with the productivity of TaskRabbit, the idealism of KickStarter and the chumminess of Facebook. It’s as much about building community as it is about building a brand.

Anyone can sign up for Time Republik. You’ll find people with more than 20 talents, like cooking (#soup), baking (#sweetpotatoepie), translation (#spanish, #german), editing, pet-sitting (#dogs) and tutoring (#literature). At this point in the website’s evolution, there aren’t enough members to find, say, a babysitter nearby with a specialty in #infants and enough recommendations to inspire immediate trust.

By contrast, Mashi Blech interviews every member of the VNSNY time bank and requires that they submit two letters of recommendation before they join. She rarely rejects anyone, but it still seems as if she’s selecting the members of an extended family; she takes pride in what she calls “the magic of the match.”

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