Time Banks and Social Capital

A Boston Globe reporter was asking me for my view about time banks and whether they build social capital.  My response was that any approach that increases social interaction in a neighborhood and people doing things for others is a clear positive for the community.

But that said, the ultimate goal should be getting people to do things for others without having to be explicit about logging who owes whom what.  In a neighborhood with strong social connections and trust, the trust serves to ensure that favors are repaid rather than needing time bank accounts that show that Jane owes two hours and Enrique has a three hour credit.

I analogized to trying to instill a sense of obligations in our children.  We want our children to take out the trash or mow the yard, not because we’re paying them for this, but because it is part of being a good citizen and doing things for others.  Even if we decide initially to have those chores be tied to an allowance, the clear hope is that as these children grow up, they will not forever insist that they be paid for these chores.  As Marion Wright Edelman said: “service is the rent we pay for living.”

In that sense, time banks to me seem like social capital with training wheels.  They get lots of useful things done, in the same way as a bike (even with training wheels) can take you much further than walking.  And time banks are a good tool for exercising residents’ fledgling social capital and developing greater interaction and exchange, but it should be an interim step, not the desired final outcome.  Societies will be far better off down the road if people start doing these acts of kindness and reciprocity without needing to bank these hours, but just out of a sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity.

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