According to its creator, Edgar Cahn, Time Banking had its roots in a time when "money for social programs [had] dried up 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 and that "the crisis in support for efforts to address social problems stems directly from the failure of . . . piecemeal efforts to rebuild genuine community." 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. 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. He theorized that a system like Time Banking could "[rebuild] the infrastructure of trust and caring that can strengthen families and communities." 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."
As a philosophy, Time Banking is founded upon five principles, known as Time Banking's Core Values:
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 . . .
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. 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. Some Time Banks employ a paid coordinator to keep track of transactions and to match requests for services with those who can provide them. In other Time Banks select a member or a group of members to handle these tasks. 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.
Example services offered by Time Bank members
|Child care||Legal assistance||Language lessons|
|Home repair||Respite care||Account management|
|Writing||Odd jobs||Office/business support|
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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, 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.
Elderplan was a social HMO which incorporated Time Banking as a way to promote active, engaged lifestyles for its older members. Funding for the "social" part of social HMOs has since dried up and much of the program has been cut, but at its height, member were able to pay portions of their premiums in Time Dollars instead of hard currency. The idea was to encourage older people to become more engaged in their communities while also to ask for help more often and "[foster] dignity by allowing people to contribute services as well as receive them.
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. The Gorbals Time Bank is run by a local charity with the intent to combat the social ills that face the region. Seyfang concluded that the Time Bank was effective at "building community capacity" and "promoting social inclusion. She highlights the Time Bank's success at "[re-stitching] the social fabric of the Gorbals." by "[boosting] engagement in existing projects and activities" in a variety of projects inluding a community safety network, a library, a healthy living project, and a theatre. 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 an continuing education course.
Washington, D.C.'s youth court, known as the Time Dollar Youth Court, uses Time Dollars to reward youths for their time spent as jurors. Started in 1996, the program enables youths convicted of non-violent crimes to hear and sentence their peers for similar offenses. Time Dollars are used to promote continued participation in the program.