By Dr. John P. David
Recently, the newly created West Virginia Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty chaired by Senator John Unger conducted a hearing hosted by the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) at The Historic Oak Hill School.
One of those who provided moving testimony was Kimberly Shrewsbury. Mrs. Shrewsbury, whose son is with the SALS YouthBuild Program, stated that she has no power because her breaker box has been destroyed. A person in the packed audience offered to help and two weeks later informed Charleston Gazette Editorial Page Editor Dawn Miller, who attended the hearing, that the repair had been made.
This act of sharing helped prompt a look at the Time Dollar concept as a way to deal with poverty by putting social capital to work. At a time in West Virginia when median family incomes are among the country’s lowest and bad credit/bankruptcies are among the highest, a major new initiative is needed to insure basic living standards.
One example is the Time Dollar concept developed by Dr. Edgar Cahn while at the District of Columbia School of Law. He said: “The problem is finding a distribution system that works equitably and enables all people to gain adequate access to the abundance this country has the capacity to produce. Work used to perform this function. The work ethic was the official mechanism for distributing wealth. But the work ethic is in trouble because work itself is in trouble. It no longer functions to provide minimal access to a decent standard of living. If everyone must be given the chance to secure a minimally decent standard of living — without promoting dependency — work must be redefined so as to compensate those socially important tasks that need to be done but that are undervalued or uncompensated by the market economy.”
Basically, local community groups and nonprofit organizations create a local tax-exempt currency called Time Dollars. This makes it possible to generate social capital and pay people in a currency that enables them to exchange an hour of their time for an hour of someone else’s time. People earn Time Dollars by helping others. Computerized Time Dollar accounting systems help mobilize human resources to provide the direct service.
As Cahn explained, “The Time Dollar currency enables human beings to redefine themselves as assets, each and every one with something special to contribute — regardless of what the market economy says. When all hours are valued equally, when the tasks are essentially those which families and neighbors have always done for each other, when the obligation to repay is backed by a moral norm of reciprocity rather than a legal normof coercion, then one is outside the realm of the Internal Revenue Service, outside the market economy, and outside the constraints of feasibility imposed by market wages and the availability of tax dollars.”
The Time Dollar program generates social capital in several ways. One is that it strengthens community of place and counters the centrifugal tendency of money to uproot community in pursuit of maximum return. Another is that it creates and reinforces an ethos of reciprocity because each hour spent creates both an expectation and an indebtedness. Finally, it creates a social etiquette that makes it permissible to reach out to help others without invading their space and makes it possible to accept help without feeling one is accepting charity. Perhaps most important, however, is that the program builds on the sense of value and pride that prevails among those in West Virginia regardless of status.
While Time Dollar is not a prescribed cure for poverty, it enables and empowers people to mobilize their own resources to better help each other. A few years ago, the Southern Appalachian Labor School prepared a packet that would establish a Time Dollar program and a Community Directory of Member Services. At that time, the project did not move forward due to the lack of start-up funding. However, the poverty issue has risen to the forefront again and the time has come to take a fresh look at implementing a pilot program. Those interested in such an effort should contact email@example.com or 304-442-3156.
(David is director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School and a professor of economics at WVU Tech.)