System of Swapping Services
Brings Neighbors and Needs Together
By Jane Braxton Little
Louis Peretz may have saved his own life by driving around his Brooklyn neighborhood for the last decade. When his health began to fail, he traded the service time he had earned as his neighbors' chauffeur for supplemental medical care.
"If I didn't have all those credits for driving people here and there I'd probably be on welfare right now -- or worse," he said. Peretz, 83, is one of the tens of thousands of people from Portland, Maine, to Pasadena, Calif., who trade shopping, gardening, plumbing and other everyday services.
Their exchanges are reconnecting them with their neighbors, strengthening their communities and creating a new economy based on people-to-people swaps.
The exchange networks are often called Time Credit, Care Shares or Neighbor to Neighbor -- which identify them with community and service. All value work and reward simple roles: raising a family, being a good citizen, caring, "the tasks we need the most," said Edgar Cahn, a District of Columbia Law School professor and founder of the Time Dollar Institute.
Cahn conceived the system of cashless exchange as a way of addressing the inadequacies of government social service programs. He aimed it at teen-agers, the elderly and the unemployed as a way to redefine themselves. In the conventional economy these groups are cast as recipients of services, said Cahn. In his "time dollar" economy they become producers, said Ana Miyares, founder and coordinator of Friend to Friend in Miami, one of the oldest and largest service exchanges.
"Everybody has something to give -- everybody," Miyares said.
The unit of credit is the "time dollar." Each hour of service provided yields an hour of credit. The exchanges are rarely one-to-one, said Mary Ellen "Bunny" Fowler, coordinator of Service Exchange of Boulder County in Longmont, Colo.
A woman who visits an elderly homebound neighbor may use her credit to have her kitchen sink repaired. The plumber may not spend the credit he earns until months later, when he needs a ride to cancer therapy provided by a third member of the exchange network.
"People feel they are meeting real needs -- physical needs necessary to life. If you don't get that ride to therapy you could die. People are helping one another to live," said Fowler.
Most service exchanges are coordinated by a hospital, church or community organization that acts as a central bank, keeping track of the volunteer hours earned and spent. When someone needs help, they call a program manager who assigns a volunteer interested in performing the task.
Peretz's program in Brooklyn is Member to Member -- part of Elderplan, Inc., a special demonstration project for Medicare recipients. Although his actual medical care is covered through the HMO, Peretz earns supplemental in-home care in exchange for chauffeuring. When he needed help, he used his service credits instead of depleting his savings to pay for home care.
Called a "social health maintenance organization," Elderplan provides nonmedical services such as transportation and group activities to help the elderly remain active community members, said Harriet Dronska, the plan's vice president and chief operations officer in Brooklyn.
The IRS has ruled that service exchanges that use hours as units of credits are tax-exempt, said Cahn. But exchanges that use credits based on U.S. dollar equivalencies can be taxed as income, said Lewis D. Solomon, a law professor who has outlined the history and legal aspects of local currency systems in his recent book, "Rethinking our Centralized Monetary Systems."
As society becomes increasingly mobile and extended families are separated by greater and greater distances, the importance of community is growing, said Judy Colen, Elderplan's supervisor of volunteer services in Brooklyn. Service exchange programs establish links among neighbors, meeting intangible needs while performing tangible tasks.
"The needs are getting greater. Isolation, loneliness, depression -- just doing errands and shopping for someone is clearly an intervention. Often the service is not crucial but the relationship is," Colen said.
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