Neighborhood exchanges like Anne's hark back to a time when folks routinely gathered together for a barn raising or pitched in to help each other bring in the harvest. However, as people lead busier, more insular lives, "that neighborhood or community exchange has gone out of our society," says Neva Goodwin, PhD, codirector of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
"People now count on getting their needs met through the formal market. If you have money, you buy it, and if you don't, you can't."
That may be changing as organizations, such as the Time Dollar Institute in Washington, D.C., help areas create formalized programs in which time is given a value, and a computerized system keeps track of credits earned from services rendered.
"The time/dollar concept is very simple," says the group's founder, Edgar Cahn, a law professor in Washington. "One hour equals one hour regardless of the activity." Ideally, to avoid tax problems, time/dollar and similar exchange programs shouldn't involve cash -- no one gets paid. "This is not a commercial exchange, so it's not a commercial barter and it isn't subject to tax as if it were real money," he says.
Instead, the concept puts a value on people skills and talents that are often considered valueless in a currency-based market. "You can create a database that tells you about the incredible richness of people and their talents and abilities," says Cahn. "People may not have marketable skills, but they can spend time with a child, teaching her to tie her shoes or the difference between green and blue."
The benefits touch people from all walks of life. "It might be a teenager who has a hard time finding work," says Goodwin. "Or it might be a retired person or someone who is bedridden and normally wouldn't be able to afford help for certain services."
Through a time/dollar program or neighborhood exchange service, that bedridden person could, for example, make phone calls to someone else who is ill or housebound and needs a little human contact. The time spent doing that equals value within the network that can be applied toward, say, having someone make a casserole dinner or walk the dog when you're out of town. "It turns out that people have something to offer that is really valued by other human beings even if it doesn't have a market value," Goodwin adds. "That is an enormously important thing to achieve."
Continued on page 3: A Bigger Family