Time Banking In Ithaca, New York

by Ilil Benjamin

I joined the new time bank in Ithaca, NY after hearing a local high-school sophomore talk about what it’s like to be raised by a struggling single parent.

Sitting shyly in front of the camera for a homemade promotional video about the new time bank, the 15 year-old explains how time banks could help teenagers like her. “There are a lot of teenagers who think that they can’t have things that they want, because they cost too much money,” she says. “Like in my case, I’ve always wanted to do piano lessons and dance lessons…” she breaks off for a moment. “And I’ve never had the chance to do that because my mom’s a single mother, and she has me and my little sister that she has to take care of. So there’s not a lot of money to be throwing into all these extracurriculars.” She breaks into an embarrassed grin, as if feeling bad about revealing her mother’s private story to strangers.

Her embarrassment and hesitancy to admit her hardship touched me. But more importantly, it made a stronger case for time banking’s social utility than any other argument I’d heard before. I’d lived before in other cities with time banks, but I never joined any of them. As I replayed her part two more times, I realized for the first time that maybe time banks were not just the feel-good hobby exchanges I’d assumed they were. Maybe they really did make a bigger difference to the poor in their communities. I decided to join to see if this was true.

In time banks, which are growing in popularity across liberal America and elsewhere, members exchange services with each other using hours as currency. As veteran time bankers will eagerly tell their new recruits, every hour is equal to every other hour. This means that an unemployed high schooler can, in theory, exchange an hour of babysitting for an hour of dental care.

The revolutionary premise of a time bank is clear: low-income individuals can use it to access crucial services they could not otherwise afford. Indeed, time bank devotees across America are describing time exchanges as an important and growing form of economic activism that re-imagines labor in egalitarian terms (an hour for an hour). Implicit in time banking is the belief that time banks can reduce, even if only in their mini-worlds, the large economic disparities that exist between the rich and the poor.

Timebanks USA, a national non-profit founded in 1995, defines time banking as the creation of “caring community economies through inclusive exchanges of time and talents.”

But are time banks truly useful to the poor in their communities? Or are they mainly a way for middle-class people to perform their community spirit without, ironically, investing too much of their time or labor? After participating in my own hometown’s time bank for over a year, I’m unsure of the answer. But the question itself matters immensely not only to time bankers themselves, but to anyone who might be interested in using grassroots initiatives to address poverty.

When I first joined my time bank in June 2013, it had only a few dozen members, most of them middle-class, middle-aged white women. During my first orientation session, a starry-eyed co-founder told us that unlike a traditional barter system, where person A exchanges services with person B, a time bank expands the pool of payers and payees to an entire community. So if I spent three hours helping Kerry, a local graphic designer, to cook for her upcoming wedding, she’d pay me three hours from her time bank account. I could then use those hours to pay Jake, a local fireman who advertises himself as handy with plumbing, to fix my toilet.

Time banking logistics are simple. Time bankers advertise both their services-for-hire and their requests on a shared online forum, through which they also contact each other to arrange and record exchanges. They have confidential online bank statements where they check their balances. In my time bank, you automatically receive 2 free hours upon joining, so you have some currency with which to play. You can’t be more than 25 hours in debt or you’re put on probation or kicked out.

The faces I see in my time bank are some of the same ones I see volunteering in my town’s prison education non-profits, sustainability groups, soup kitchen, and free medical clinic. This is not an accident. Although a time bank is neither a volunteer initiative nor a charity, many of its participants implicitly treat it as such. They could be forgiven for being confused. It is precisely time-banking’s blurring of the boundaries between the professional and personal, and between selling and sharing, that makes it such a fascinating form of exchange.

I do love participating in my time bank. I’ve tutored someone in a foreign language, and I’ve helped others with grant writing and festival tabling. Others have taught me to a crochet a shawl, and shown me how to plan balanced vegetarian meals. With each exchange, I’ve gotten a bit closer to my community, seeing it not only as an abstract environment, but as a series of tangible exchanges that prove that people who don’t know each other can still elect to share a collective bond and responsibility.

Right now, I have a positive balance of 6.5 hours. I’m still waiting to pay out a chunk of hours to a person who’s binding me a scrapbook for some poems. I hope I don’t end up in too much debt after she charges me for her labor, which will probably be at least 12 hours. But even if I do, I feel good knowing I can repay that debt by helping people translate documents or walk their dogs.

But feeling good, though it draws people into time banking, also has an important downside. It is that what people offer to do for others is typically work that they feel good doing. It is a limited conceptualization of work, which has much in common with leisure time and hobby time. More importantly, it means that other types of labor are less likely to be offered.

Shortly after joining my time bank in June 2013, I sat at my computer and browsed my time bank’s offers and requests for the first time. No one was offering legal, medical, or financial services for hire.

Over a year later, I believe we now have at least two accountants, one lawyer, and one licensed massage therapist in the time bank. But they are offering services like hair trimming and dog walking, not financial guidance, legal counseling, or massage.

Back in June 2013, I also noticed that the offers and the requests were out of balance. Offers included services like editing, language tutoring, sewing, repairing musical instruments, cooking, voice coaching, holiday gift-wrapping, book-binding, writing life histories, babysitting, graphic designing, nutritional guidance, cycling coaching, and creating Powerpoint presentations.

But on the requests side, there were few calls for language tutoring or voice coaching. Instead, most people wanted help fixing their bikes, taking dents out of their cars, treating their aching backs, weeding their gardens, cleaning their gutters, rewiring the electricity in their old rural houses, and fixing leaky pipes.

“Who wouldn’t want to save a thousand dollars on car repair?” I thought as I scrolled through some of the more audacious requests. When I mentioned this mismatch between supply and demand to one of my time bank’s founding members, she nodded amiably, and advised me to wait. Our time bank is young, she said, and yes, it is also mainly middle class, white, middle-aged, and female. Let’s accrue additional members and see how supply and demand balance themselves out over time. Yet over a year later, while I see more numerous ethnicities and ages, similar overall offer and request patterns remain.

Part of the issue is that time banking sometimes get confused with volunteer work. When people volunteer to do something unpleasant, they typically wish to make sure their labor will be filling a genuine and urgent need. I wouldn’t mind helping someone in a poor community gut their house after a catastrophic flood. But I would find much less appealing the idea of weeding a random middle class stranger’s garden (unless it was something I already enjoyed doing). It is true that time bankers are getting something measurable and immediate for their time, and not just donating it freely. But even applying to join a time bank can be a lengthy, non-remunerated process (references and essay-type questions are often required), which thereby weeds out anyone not committed to it, and indeed invokes some of the same idealism and drive that we associate with volunteer work.

Most people want their volunteer work to be personally enriching in some way. It is debatable whether a dentist who has spent all week doing dental work for money would elect to spend their free time doing more dental work, this time “only” for hours. Some might, but based on my time bank, I would guess not many. Of course, numerous medical professionals volunteer their skills for free through charitable organizations. But the personal satisfaction that comes with volunteering is often its own reward, and one which is diminished in in time banking, where people know they are not giving anything away for free, but are technically being compensated for their time.

Because time banks occupy a vague space in-between the voluntary and professional realms, they change not only the currency that is used, but also the assumptions that govern its exchange. In my time bank, members often don’t know how to respond when they get poor service from others. Even though the time bank’s rules of engagement are unambiguous (high quality services and an hour for an hour), in practice, few members can define precisely what “high quality” means in a time bank. Nor can they think of time banking purely in terms of its economic components, as they would think of buying a coffee at Starbucks. On the contrary: I have heard many stories of the intimacy members have built over the course of their exchanges, especially if these involved caring for vulnerable people or sharing their life passions. Most time bankers, after all, are not professionals in elder care or sewing. Even when they perform these services well, most of them haven’t cultivated the detachment that is customary for such labor in the professional world.

Indeed, the relations people form through time banking are rarely just professional; they often become personal. This can make it difficult for them to demand the punctuality and standards that they would expect of typical economic exchanges. During a time bank meeting last year, one member, barely hiding his anger, told the rest of us about a photographer he had hired through the time bank to take photos during his company function. When the young photographer sent him the photos afterwards, many of them were blurry and not good enough to put on the company website.

When the receiver complained to the photographer, the latter had allegedly simply responded that the lighting hadn’t been optimal, and offered no other comment. What was the company man now to do? Could he sue the photographer? Demand his hours back? Both would be ridiculous, he added immediately, sounding embarrassed. It felt like a betrayal of his community even to say such a thing. He was the last person to want to undermine this fragile alternative economy he had pledged to nurture. And what would he sue for, anyway? What price would he put on that labor? The rest of us, listening to him, couldn’t help but wonder: could you really demand professional standards from an amateur at a time bank, or even from a professional working “just” for hours?

One of the time bank’s founding members was resolute in her response: absolutely. Time banking is a professional exchange like any other, she insisted, except with time instead of money. You expect the same standards of service that you would if you were buying a product. Yet if other members’ fraught exchanges were any indication, these boundaries were for most people not so clearly drawn. Offers for plumbing, sewing, and editing services are typically not given by professionals in those fields. Moreover, the offers themselves often imply, by their tone, that people are providing a labor of love. Few receivers, I argue, would feel comfortable holding labors of love up to cold, capitalistic standards.

Even in a town with a hippie/progressive reputation like Ithaca, time banking is a glaring anomaly in an environment of run-of-the-mill, perhaps slightly more-fair-trade-than-thou capitalism. Yet those who participate in my time bank do not reject, or even distance themselves from, the regular town economy. They are very rarely the people who live off the grid, or on low incomes, or in self-sustaining homesteads. Rather, they are mostly middle-class homeowners who treat time banking much like they treat their soup kitchens and farmer’s markets. It is another way for them to express their connection to the community, without radically transforming it.

My town’s time bank might have made a real difference to the poor in my community. But doing so would have required its founders to aggressively recruit high-cost professionals, and give them a serious lecture about how important it is for this alternative economy to offer true equality: one hour of dental work in exchange for one hour of babysitting. It would also have required members to actively seek out those low-income individuals who would benefit most from a time bank, and making sure they had the time and ability to even participate.

My time bank’s founding members passionately believe that everyone, young and old, employed and unemployed, has something significant and useful to contribute to a community. They delight in seeing people give and receive much-needed services without a cent being exchanged. But a time bank cannot alleviate inequality as long as it creates only the structure for people to offer services and express needs, but not the market for these needs and services.

Meanwhile, as I’ve grown to know more of my time bank’s members, I’ve noticed that both the poor and the rich, the professionals and the unemployed, are largely absent from the community.

Perhaps most of my time bank’s professionals, however devoted to egalitarianism in theory, still value their professional skills too highly to give them away for mere hours. And perhaps people in genuine poverty are too busy struggling to get by to participate in a time bank that may or may not help them when they need it most. This might be the most we could hope for from a hippie, progressive town that otherwise still runs overwhelmingly on dollars.

Ilil Benjamin is a graduate student. She’s been living in Ithaca for just over 7 years.

Photo via Time Banks USA

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