There are more than 12 million unemployed Americans right now, and that's not counting discouraged workers and the underemployed. That means that far more than 12 million people have skills that are not being put to use in the job market. But in scores of small, alternative economies around the country, the jobless and the gainfully employed alike can earn value by providing their services to others.
The idea is called time banking, and it is based on the simple notion that time is equal for all people. In this system, services can be exchanged based on how long it takes to complete them, rather than on a market value determined by supply and demand. Raking the local massage therapist's leaves for one hour can be traded for a 60-minute Swedish massage, in other words.
There are more than 300 time banks around the world, in more than 35 countries, according to the nonprofit TimeBanks USA. In the organization's time bank directory, a few fledgling groups list zero or one members, but some have more than 500. The Dane County TimeBank in Madison, Wis., for example, lists 2,025 members.
These are not banks in the traditional sense. Instead of brick-and-mortar depository institutions, many time banks are simply organizations that facilitate and track how their members exchange their time and services. Many time banks involve simple neighbor-to-neighbor exchanges.
"You're in a system of members. So you might do something for me, so you earn an hour," explains Linda Hogan, a cofounder of hOurworld, a Portland, Maine-based nonprofit that provides training and services that help time banks to operate. Earning an hour—or a "time dollar" or "service credit," as different time banks call them—means that a participant can "buy" an hour of service from another person. Likewise, a person can "spend" that earned hour credit like money to buy services from someone else. The time bank helps participants connect with each other and keeps track of credits earned and spent.
Hogan emphasizes that these transactions are not simply trades; just because you taught Portuguese to one person doesn't mean you must accept a service from them. Rather, you can seek out services more suited to your needs from your time bank's listing of available services.
Those services range from the mundane to the life saving. While some participants trade in their babysitting or guitar-lesson skills, others offer healthcare and business services. Hogan estimates that 25 percent to 30 percent of services exchanged in Portland are related to healthcare, both traditional and nontraditional. That's boosted by True North, a healthcare provider in Portland that allows time bank members with earnings below a certain level to pay for services with time dollars.
"My best exchange was the guy who married me and my husband. I paid him one time bank hour to marry us," says Emily Steinwehe, who participates in Madison's Dane County TimeBank, offering her expertise in gardening and dog training. She adds that car repair and electrical work are two of the most sought-after services in Dane County's time bank, in part because only a few members provide them.
"Really, the sky's the limit. We've had babies born, we've had weddings, funerals, [and] lots of small business development," Hogan says.
While it seems intrinsically true that time is equal for all, the idea that eight hours of delivering a baby could be as valuable as eight hours of scrubbing someone's floors can be jarring. After all average annual pay for OB-GYNs is well over $200,000, and midwives regularly earn more than $100,000. Compare that to the roughly $25,000 that janitors averaged in 2011.
But this concept of equality lies at the heart of time banking, says Edgar Cahn, the founder of TimeBanks USA.
"It values people and activities that the market doesn't value. Because in the market and in the monetary world, price defines value," Cahn says. "So if it's scarce, it's valuable. If it's abundant, it's cheap. If it's really abundant, it's worthless."