2008 PFIG Recipient John Slinkman

Career Administrator

John Slinkman
College of Arts & Sciences
Economics
2009 Graduation Year

Internship: TimeBanks USA in Washington, DC 

TimeBanks USA is an umbrella organization for an alternative economics movement known as Time Banking. The concept of Time Banking is simple: it rejects the notion that we can accurately judge the worth of a human being by a dollar value and the worth of their labor by an hourly wage. Instead, it proposes that we value the labor of every individual equally and establishes an alternative monetary system based solely on the following equation: one hour of labor equals one unit of currency. In practice—no doubt to the dismay of some revolutionary elements—the Time Banking movement does not seek to replace the dollar economy with the new currency, but to develop ways for the two to complement each other. Across the U.S., and in 24 countries around the world, communities have created Time Banks where members exchange goods and services on an hour for an hour basis. Exchanges do not necessarily involve only two people or two groups. Rather, individuals can accumulate credits doing maintenance work or preparing meals for those who need it only to spend the credits weeks later at a yoga class. In some Time Banks, credits are earned and spent on things ranging from childcare to business/career consulting to legal services.

Many people view Time Banking as a return to the good old days, when neighbors helped neighbors just because and usury was against the law. Anecdotal evidence from real Time Banks shows that Time Banking does indeed strengthen communities, while it also has implications for the way volunteer organizations run. The emphasis on the equality of each person’s time and skills removes some of the stigma associated with being the recipient of “free” services: when everyone is told they have something to offer, everyone feels more valuable. Thus, when the Time Banking model is overlaid onto an existing volunteer organization’s structure, often times there is an increase in the participation and retention rates. In many situations, people who never would have volunteered their time before become active members of Time Banks. If the whole concept seems like something that would only take root in aging hippy communities, you are not alone. That was certainly my first reaction, and indeed how I got involved with the organization in the first place: my hometown of Montpelier, Vermont (aging hippy community par excellence) had just started a Time Bank and one of the organizers found out that I was looking for summer work at an economics organization with an alternative view of economics. She put me in touch with the founder of Time Banking at the national office and a couple weeks later I was skipping school to attend a training session for organizations interested in starting Time Banks in their communities. That is a misinformed view of Time Banking, however: some of the most successful Time Banks are located in poor urban areas. The DC Youth Court uses Time Banking concepts to prevent kids from becoming repeat offenders. In New York, for instance, a social HMO called Elderplan incorporated Time Banking into its structure as a way to encourage more preventative health care quite successfully (until social HMO’s lost their federal funding, that is). Philadelphia has recently written funding for Time Banking into its municipal budget.

Notes on the first week 

I have interned at the national office of TimeBanks USA in Washington, DC for just over a week and the whole summer looks to be shaping up well. I spent the first couple of days reviewing Time Banking literature, grant materials, and anything else that the office thought useful to get me up to speed. When I arrived, they basically told me “you decide your own level of involvement.” They have plenty for me to do, so much that I essentially get to pick and choose amongst the projects that most interest me.

One of the problems that Time Banks face is a lack of a consistent source of funding. To combat this, TBUSA is launching an experimental program called CareBanks. The CareBanks program combines Time Banking concepts with insurance to provide a sustainable source of informal care for elderly persons. Seniors will pay monthly premiums in both their time and small amounts of money and in return the CareBank assures them that they will receive an adequate amount of care in the event they need it. They want me to analyze the project on several levels: some purely economic—such as, is this idea actually sustainable?—and some more moral. The overall goal is for me to create a body of literature that they will use as they pitch CareBanks to potential funders and I have spent much of my time this first week getting started on this. If ever this gets completed, there will be many other things to work on. I know they would like to conduct a census of TimeBanks in the U.S. to get a feel for the overall status of the movement.

I think that this summer is shaping up well. Since I got involved with economics at UVA, I have been looking for alternatives to the dominant theories usually presented in classrooms and TimeBanks USA certainly has an alternative perspective not only on economics but on social change as well. I think I have a great opportunity to learn something new this summer while doing something valuable at the same time.

Midway

I have now been at TBUSA for over six weeks and established as much of a routine here as I think I ever will. Work has been somewhat haphazard over the past couple weeks: the CareBanks project has pretty much ground to a standstill due to lack of funding, which is kind of ironic because CareBanks is supposed to be a source of stable funds for Time Banks. Consequently, I’ve shifted my emphasis to doing a census of Time Banks across the U.S. I have spent the last two weeks on the phone with Time Banks, interviewing coordinators about their successes and failures, what support they need, and, after I realized that I truly have learned a lot about running these sorts of organizations due to my time here, offering advice. This work looks like it will bear fruit: there seem to be a lot of ways in which TBUSA could better serve its member Time Banks. Currently, I am writing a grant proposal for a project to help increase the amount and quality of communication between successful Time Banks and those that are having difficulty getting started. 

One realization I have had this summer is just how strapped for funding social service organizations have become. I have had the chance to read over many grant proposals which probably will not see funding, see many grants be rejected simply because there is not enough money to go around, and listen to people from large organizations complain about how the conservative (in the words of one of my interviewees) fundraising schemes of their boards of directors leave little room for services like Time Banking, which are not profit oriented. The financing of services like these is something we as a society and as citizens are going to have to come to terms with: the decision seems not to rest on questions of whether or not we can, but whether or not we should. It is a question of where our societal values lie. 

I am looking forward to the second half of my internship. Having called many of the more struggling Time Banks, I will now be calling those which have had more success getting started. We continue to look for ways to put people who want to start Time Banking in touch with those with experience. I have learned a lot about alternative currencies, money in general, and their relations to social causes and I hope to continue to do so.

Final Reflections

It has actually been quite some time since I finished my summer internship at TimeBanks USA, which means that I have had a lot of time for my experiences to acquire meaning for me. Overall, my time with TimeBanks USA was positive and enlightening and I believe that I was able to help the organization grow. I continue to be dumbfounded by all the prevalence of the problems—education, eldercare, crime, gentrification, and all other issues of legal and social justice—that face our society today, problems which TimeBanks USA and many other organizations try to address. After this summer, I realized that I need a more sophisticated approach to these problems myself. There are so many organizations working toward noble goals, many of which I had contact with this summer, but the majority of them spend more time struggling and politicking for money, and have little time to devote to their actual cause. I think that finding an acceptable way of enabling those with such noble goals is one of the most pressing issues facing us today. 

As for my own accomplishments this summer, I think my most important contribution was an analysis of how TBUSA could better serve its members lacking experience with community organizing. I am more certain than ever that I would like to continue research into the economics of social issues like those mentioned above and, though I enjoyed my summer, I think this calls for a graduate education before I foray again into the practical world. Nonetheless, I think that working on the ground for even a summer gave me valuable perspectives on issues that until now had been mostly theoretical problems for me. I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in social justice try to gain the same sort of ground-level perspectives.