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Time and Money, Reinvented—While Building Stronger Communities
posted 01.25.2016

By Edgar Cahn

My name is Edgar Cahn. Last year, my eldest son and I had our bar mitzvah. At 13, I had refused to have one but in 2014, felt I was ready to undergo the ceremony. So I am 80 going on 14. Being 80 means I have many years to look back on. Being 14 means I have so much to look forward to!

My life has been devoted to fighting injustice because as a child, my father, a legal philosopher, taught me that we could never grasp what justice really was. It was too ideal, too abstract, too perfect. He also taught me that we are all endowed with a sense of injustice, an ability to recognize unfairness, to respond to intolerable disparities. My father planted in me the belief that my life’s role and mission must be to fight injustice—and that belief has shaped my life on every front.

My late wife, Jean Camper Cahn, was African American. We got engaged in 1953, one year before Brown v. the Board of Education, and 14 years before the Supreme Court struck down statutes declaring interracial marriage illegal. We became lawyers, and together formed a new kind of legal services program in a low-income neighborhood. From that experience we wrote “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective,” which was published in the Yale Law Journal and led to the National Legal Services program (later, the Legal Services Corporation). That program has served tens of millions of clients.

Jean and I decided law schools were turning out lawyers with no understanding of the needs of the powerless—so we created our own, the Antioch School of Law. We pioneered clinical legal education, in which students work with clients in need of legal help. Antioch is now the UDC-David A. Clarke School of Law—Washington D.C.’s public school of law. The idea of clinical legal education spread and is now a requirement by the American Bar Association.

Seeds of an Idea

Being a law school Dean might have been my whole career—but fate chose otherwise. At age 44, I had a massive heart attack. The doctors told me the best I could expect was a short life. I felt broken down and useless—but in the 1980 recession, I could see that many others must have felt useless, too.

I began to think about money—and about how the awesome skills, spirit and talents of communities in poverty are not honored or rewarded. I thought about creating a new kind of money that would do a better job of uniting community capacity and needs. The idea of service credits to reward acts of help came to mind. Every day in the hospital, I awoke fired up with the sense that I had a new mission to accomplish—to bring this new money to the world.

I believe that this mission helped me recover my health. I thought I would hand over the idea of service credits to others, and quickly they would be folded into government programs as a way to honor, recognize and reward the contributions citizens make to the well-being of their communities. And I would return to being a law professor. Instead, this new money (now known as TimeBanking) would become my life’s work.

What Makes TimeBanking Tick

I learned how deeply the use and thinking around money shape every aspect of our lives. The money we use every day is designed to allocate scarce resources efficiently. Ironically, it also creates scarcity because it uses price to value what’s scarce. TimeBanking was designed to reverse that. TimeBanking has no price: every hour of contribution earns a single time credit—regardless of the work performed; in TimeBanking, lawyering and babysitting have equal value.

On the efficiency front, this is crazy. But efficiency is not TimeBanking’s purpose. Its purpose is to reward and support creation of well-being within community—in ways that money has singularly failed to do. But I saw that when organizations attempt to put this complementary currency to work, they quickly find out how deeply their work is shaped by the dynamics of money. TimeBanking asks them to rethink the way they do business, in the most profound respects.

This is where my 14-year-old self, looking to the future, steps in. TimeBanking has spread to more than 30 countries, and people are learning how this “funny money” works. Now, young entrepreneurs and social activists are figuring it out. In my book, No More Throw-Away People (London: Essential Books, Ltd., 2004), I wrote about lives transformed by TimeBanking. There’s the 92-year-old patient who earns Time Dollars by bringing a joke or cartoon in to her healthcare provider’s office and sharing them, one by one, with staff. Or the teenager, living alone with his depressed mother, who saved up time credits so that when he went away to college, she was able to buy the range of local supports she needed.

The stories now have multiplied—and as people learn about TimeBanking, my role is changing. Increasingly, I am called upon to recognize and honor the work of those who have used TimeBanking to achieve powerful results.

Recently, I was in New Zealand, where a massive earthquake and TimeBanking combined to produce profound lessons about what, as communities, we value and how we can design social systems better to meet everyone’s needs. A TimeBank there provided up-to-the-minute information on safety, road and school access, and availability of resources, and deployed volunteers, provided counseling and handled donated supplies.

I continue to learn much as I visit TimeBanks at home and abroad. One in Allentown, Pa., which is run through a hospital, provides informal care to elderly and disabled people; it has helped reduce readmissions to hospitals and decrease the care costs associated with “super-users.” People who receive this care have repaid the time by learning to become translators for Latino hospital patients. I’d like to see TimeBanking used to provide respite to caregivers, and help older adults age at home.

The mission never ends!

Edgar Cahn is the founder and CEO of TimeBanks USA in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store or Join ASA.

Photo Credit: Christine Gray
Abby Greer, founder of the Crooked River Alliance of TimeBanks in Kent, Ohio, with Edgar Cahn at a local farmer’s market in Kent. TimeBanking plays a major role in operating the farmer’s market there. 

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