Time is money in barter program

Credits: Baltimore has joined other towns where citizens swap services as if exchanging currency.

May 25, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A part-time farm worker named Brad Johnson is mailing stacks of money to 200 people around Baltimore, many of them strangers. But this isn't cash as most of us know it. These are slivers of time.

Printed to look like dollars -- but with historic scenes of Baltimore washed in pastels instead of George Washington's mug -- a new currency called "Baltimore Hours" made its debut this week, joining a small but growing worldwide movement back to the age-old tradition of bartering.

Fans say such programs hark back to simpler times -- when people did for others in their neighborhoods, stores didn't send their profits out of state, and folks spent most of their money where they lived. At a time when real "dollars" are backed by neither silver nor gold, the fixed value of an hour gives confidence to some.

Participants in Baltimore Hours sign up to offer their talents, from acupressure to yard work, in exchange for the new currency. To start with, each will get four hours' worth of the money, along with a directory of participants and the services each will perform.

Paul Dibos, a 39-year-old architect who plans to offer tutoring, just wants to do a little bit to keep "money" in town. When he forks over cash at a chain store, he says, "it goes zoom, straight out of Baltimore."

About 21 cities and towns in the United States and Canada have local currency programs, according to the E.F. Schumacher Society of Great Barrington, Mass., which tracks them. About 150 other programs that run on "time credits" without currency operate around the world, estimates the Time Dollar Institute in Washington.

"Everybody's talking about the problems of globalization," said Lewis D. Solomon, a professor at George Washington University Law School and author of a book promoting local currencies. "This is one concrete thing to help strengthen local communities and neighborhoods economically."

Ithaca model

In Chicago, a program called Time Dollar Tutoring claims to have placed 4,075 computers in low-income homes by using elementary pupils to tutor their peers. Credits from Ithaca HOURS, an 11-year-old program in Ithaca, N.Y., on which Baltimore Hours is largely based, are accepted at 400 local businesses, including fine restaurants. The currency bears the words: "In Ithaca We Trust."

In the Baltimore area, more than 200 residents of Pleasant View Gardens, the low-income housing complex built to replace the Lafayette Courts project in East Baltimore, take part in a "time bank" that allows them to trade services such as baby-sitting. They also use hours to buy donated items such as shoes and computers.

A Severna Park organization has run a time-credit bank for the past 10 years, focusing on help for elderly and disabled people who want to stay in their homes.

There's nothing illegal about such systems of exchange; they're even taxable in most cases. But mainstream economists scoff that they won't ever amount to much more than curiosities.

`Doomed to fail'

"These things are doomed to fail because they are a very high-cost way of exchanging things," said Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on currency systems. "Who in the world would agree to do this when you could get paid $10 an hour and spend it anywhere you want? If it was so good, we'd be going back to barter exchanges and monthly fairs."

Still, the concept has drawn the attention and the dollars of several local and national foundations.

The Baltimore Community Foundation recently contributed $2,140 to help Baltimore Hours print its money.

"I think what we really liked about this particular project was less that it was an economic development tool and more that it was really about people in a neighborhood meeting each other when they might not have met before," said Ann Daniels, a program officer for the foundation.

The father of the modern-day "time bank" movement is Edgar S. Cahn, a law professor and founder of the national Legal Services Corporation, who hit upon the concept while recovering from a heart attack in 1980.

He wanted to find a way that the ill, incapacitated or underemployed could accept help without feeling useless -- and where hard-to-quantify services such as companionship, care-taking and favor-doing could have economic value.

Cahn wrote a book about the idea, called No More Throw-Away People.

He also established a Web site promoting the cause, called yeswecan.net.

He counts a "youth court" in Washington -- where troubled teens earn credit hours as jurors of peers -- and the Chicago tutoring program as evidence that time-dollar programs can yield results. The largest time-dollar program, in St. Louis, has 8,000 members and serves 19 neighborhoods.

But attempts to take the time-dollar concept nationwide have failed.

A Robert Wood Johnson pilot program to use service credits to keep managed-care costs down sputtered -- in part, a review found, because of the trouble it took to keep track of hours and match services with recipients.

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