Good as Gold

Banking time while rebuilding the core economy


The best thing about a shakeup, economic or otherwise, is the way it provokes innovation and creative social change. A near fatal experience for human rights attorney Edgar Cahn sparked a brilliant idea for bettering the quality of human life. And almost 20 years later, his idea has materialized in places around the world, evolved through practice and is ready for use by communities where lives are being shaken up by an unreliable economy and by people seeking positive change. It’s called “time banking” and it rebuilds something wonderful, something called the “core economy,” that doesn’t have anything to do with money.

A few of us are just now organizing a time bank over in Napa, and we have several hundred models to study in this country and even more in 21 other countries around the world. The closest time banks are in Oakland and Walnut Creek. One thing that’s apparent is that each one is unique and evolves to reflect the character of the community.

How a time bank functions on the surface is very simple and straightforward: I exchange one hour of my time providing a service to someone in my community, and in return I receive one hour of service. For example, I spend one hour cooking for someone in my community. For someone else, I spend two hours writing web copy. Into my time bank account goes one “time dollar” for each hour of service I provide. Then when I need someone to help in the yard, I search the time bank website or call the organizers, and they locate someone whose service is yard work. I can spend some of my banked time dollars in exchange for that service. It’s an hour-for-an-hour exchange, so a lawyer’s time is worth the same as a gardener’s. Everyone’s service has the same value, because this is a core economic system.

“Core economy” was coined by economist Neva Goodwin to describe the not-for-sale worthiness of relationships and services provided close to home or close to heart. In numerous writings over the years, Cahn emphasizes how the core economy has been damaged by the money economy. The former operates on values including love and trust and reciprocity; the latter, upon price and supply and demand. Both are systems where goods and services are exchanged, and both systems are necessary, but the core economy needs rebuilding. The time banks website ( explores how interpersonal connections have suffered by having “paid professionals [do] the work that once was an integral part of family and community life.”


Time banks are changing that. Consider Jane Doe, age 85, who needs to get some groceries but has no car and no close family members in town. In the money economy, she can pay a taxi or call a social-service agency that provides rides to seniors, but one is expensive and the other makes her feel old and dependent. As a time bank member, Jane calls for a ride with another time bank member, exchanging the time dollars she banked by tutoring a child in math. Not only is her need met without spending a dime or depending on an agency, but she feels good about her contribution to the community. She might also make a new friend on her way to the store. If I were the one giving Jane a ride, I’d ask her math questions as we drove and she could ask me for my curry soup recipe.

As for recipes to build local community, I am full of hope for what time banking might bring to my community—and to me, a single mom. I will report back in this column when we see what emerges in Napa. Meanwhile, since my community is full of self-proclaimed “foodies,” I will include part of a recipe found on the time banks website: “Take as many fresh people as can be found locally. Sift out their spare time and individual talents. Blend and mix thoroughly. Season with a healthy sprinkling of reciprocity. Add a hefty heaping of fun. Leave to prove in a warm environment to allow trust to permeate.”

Sonoma County Library