TOPICS > Economy

In Maine, Service Time Swapped to Help Stretch Dollars in Recession

November 17, 2010 at 4:39 PM EST
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Special correspondent David Brancaccio traveled across America to find people who are creating new jobs and opportunities in their communities to stay afloat during the recession for a PBS documentary called "Fixing the Future." In this excerpt, he reports how some Mainers have started sharing services to save money.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: finding creative ways to stay afloat in tough times. That’s the subject of a new PBS documentary called “Fixing the Future.”

Correspondent David Brancaccio traveled coast to coast in search of Americans creating new jobs and opportunities in their own communities.

In this excerpt, he tells a story of sharing services in a New England town.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: The last stop on my road trip brings me back home to the place where I grew up, the state of Maine. Trust me, it’s not all fancy coastline and lobster.

But there is an economic innovation being tested here in Portland that I want to know more about. It involves a bank, but not the kind with money. It’s a time bank, known as Hour Exchange Portland, where people swap services and build community.

I start by making a deposit, an hour of my own skills as a handyman.

MAN: We’re doing some basic weatherization down here. So, you can see all these cobwebs?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Yes.

MAN: Cobwebs are a great way to see that there is some major airflow going on down here, because that’s how their food comes in down here in the basement. If it’s bugs…

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So, if this was well-sealed and well-insulated, the spiders wouldn’t waste their time.

ROBERT ELLIS, Hour Exchange Portland: Exactly.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So, we’re on this quest to fix the economy of the future…

ROBERT ELLIS: Fix the economy.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: … not just dig ourselves out of the hole…

ROBERT ELLIS: All right. All right.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: … but maybe do better…

ROBERT ELLIS: Right.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: … maybe make the economy serve more people.

ROBERT ELLIS: Right.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Do you think there are ways we could do better on the economy?

ROBERT ELLIS: Yes, certainly. I think one of the problems — or I guess, kind of taking a step back, one of the problems would be putting people to work. I think that’s a big problem with the economy and what’s going on.

With alternative currency, with time banking, what that is, is that is putting people out, coming out here to do this type of work, help a neighbor, meet — it’s the whole networking of it, but it’s not using cash.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Portland Hour Exchange was started by a real Maine doctor, Richard Rockefeller. He’s from that Rockefeller family noted for its success in the traditional dollar economy. Yet, he believed that fixing his community in Portland would take more than dollars.

RICHARD ROCKEFELLER, founder, Hour Exchange Portland: In time banking, a member provides a service to another member. And it’s a lot like volunteering, but, in return, they earn one time dollar, which is not a piece of paper. People write it down, but eventually they enter it into a computer program.

And the time dollar they earn, they can then spend on the service of another member who’s in the whole time banking system.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And the time dollar is an hour?

RICHARD ROCKEFELLER: A time dollar is an hour. So, an hour earns you a time dollar, no matter what the service, so that right away is a radical departure from the formal economy, where different services are worth different things, depending on scarcity and supply and demand.

In this case, in a community, everybody’s time is equal. So, economists, for that reason, often find this completely foolhardy and incomprehensible. And, fortunately, so does the IRS, because that is considered a noncommercial transaction, and therefore nontaxable.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Jennifer Lunden is the nice lady with that basement that needed weatherizing.

JENNIFER LUNDEN, Hour Exchange Portland: Well, this is what I love about the Hour Exchange. First of all, you get to do things that you really love to do. And, in my case, what I’m doing now a lot more is, I’m a therapist. And it’s a way that I’m able to offer therapy to people who’s insurance has run out or who are uninsured.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You bump into a lot of those people?

JENNIFER LUNDEN: Well, it seems like it happens — it happens more often than I would like.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Yes.

JENNIFER LUNDEN: I have an option that they can — they can join the time banks and earn time credits and pay me with that. And, for me, that works out great, because my doctor takes time credit from me.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Sweet.

JENNIFER LUNDEN: Sweet.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That’s incredible.

JENNIFER LUNDEN: And he’s an exceptionally good doctor. He’s the doctor I would want to see. If I had money to pay or if I — if he took my insurance, he’s the doctor that I would see.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Are you connecting with other people? Are you meeting other people through this?

JENNIFER LUNDEN: This is like the new kind of community. In this country, we have lost a lot of the sense of community, and people are so focused on just surviving economically or doing better than their neighbors economically. We’re so focused on stuff, that we have completely lost our sense of community. And Hour Exchange is a way that I have a built-in community. There are about 600 members that I can go to and ask for help.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: I contributed my hour to the Portland exchange. Now it’s my time to debit my account, as my fixing-the-future explorations comes to a close. What I get is a sailing lesson from exchange member Steve Beckett, a physical therapist and a sailor.

Steve…

STEPHEN BECKETT, Hour Exchange Portland: Yes.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: … I have got to say that sharing hours doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice right now. You know, I go into a nice person’s basement. I squirt in a little bit of expandable insulation. I put up a little weather stripping. Then I get to come out on the water with you.

In a sense, it’s an example that with more community doesn’t mean material sacrifices necessarily.

STEPHEN BECKETT: One of the principles of service exchange is that everyone, everyone has things they can share. I think that we have been exchanging skills as long as we have been aware that we were even on the planet.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Can you make it bigger? Can you make it wider, to the point that maybe you can start to change the economy?

STEPHEN BECKETT: We just have this arbitrary economic system that we all have — you know, have grown up in and believe in and contribute to and work in. If it’s not working anymore, then let’s do something different. I think the seeds already are planted and sprouted and well on their way.

People are in distress all over for many, many reasons on many different fronts. People are wondering, how are we — how are we going to get by? How are we going to live? How are we going to get by when we’re 80? You know, what are we going to do for health care? What are we going to do for transportation? How are we going to stay warm in the winter? How are we going to meet all — all of the basic human needs that we all have?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And you would argue that some of the answer to that is in community, is in…

STEPHEN BECKETT: Sure. It always has been, always has been. Community is more like something that we’re remembering than something that we’re creating all over again.

Let’s turn and go back into the wind.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Let’s do that.

GWEN IFILL: “Fixing the Future” airs on many PBS stations this week.