Annie Kelly, The Guardian
Edgar Cahn, the relentless social innovator, has spent his life trying to change things. He is now 72, and for the first 20 years of his career he built a reputation as a US civil rights lawyer and activist, fighting for the rights of ethnic minorities, women and indigenous communities. Then, at 44, he suffered a major heart attack, which he says ‘changed my life for ever and for the better’. From his hospital bed, he began to develop the ideas that would refocus his prodigious energies.
‘Lying there, I realised I had the skills to help someone deal with an eviction notice, but I had no way of knowing how to help them make their building or their community a good and decent place to live,’ Cahn says.
Cahn subsequently came to England, to the London School of Economics, to start work on his idea of ‘core economy’ – the premise that every person can be an asset and that productivity must be redefined to include social as well as economic contributions.
This looks beyond traditional economics to contend that we must develop a new set of values based on families, communities and civil society, and which places value on raising children, keeping families together, taking care of elderly people, and making the planet sustainable – all deemed worthless in the market economy, but essential to enable our communities to thrive, he argues.
‘Every capacity that has enabled our species to survive, such as caring for each other, trusting each other, relying on each other, has become excluded from our economic system,’ Cahn says. ‘And I realised that there was no way we were going to build communities we wanted to live in if we didn’t completely reassess our value system and start rewarding human as well as financial contributions.’
When he returned to the US in the late 1980s, Cahn founded time banking, his vehicle for putting his core economy into action. Working on the simple premise of reciprocity, time banks aim to place value on community action, promote productivity and build social networks by engaging local people in the giving and receiving of services. It allows people to amass time credits by participating in or providing a service that benefits the wider community. These credits are then deposited in a time bank and can be spent on a whole range of skills and services on offer from other members of the bank.
The system started off as a simple like-for-like exchange – for example, someone offering a lift to the shops in return for an hour of babysitting – but has evolved into more sophisticated models, with community groups and social agencies swapping training, expertise and skills. The movement has now gone international, with time banks in more than 25 countries. There are 86 established time banks in the UK, with another 36 in development.
Cahn believes time banking can help society cope with the increasing burden of need communities are having to shoulder – such as what he calls the ‘impending age tsunami’, the breakdown of the family unit and environmental decay.
‘The biggest providers of health and social care aren’t doctors or social service professionals, they’re mothers and carers,’ Cahn says. In the UK, ‘they provide over £87bn worth of unpaid care a year. But while we have a whole system of rewards for financial achievement, there is no adequate reward system for instilling values in our kids, for caring, for community aspiration, for sharing.’
Time banking provides a model to do this. In King’s Cross, London, the Holy Cross training centre is running a scheme in which clients build up time credits to pay for vocational training courses. And Cahn hopes that, in the future, time credits will be used to buy prescriptions, access community recreation facilities or pay for health or national education services.
Having recently finished an exhausting UK tour, Cahn says he is ‘bowled over’ by the speed at which time banks are developing here. He cites a recent contract tender let by the north London borough of Camden’s adult social services team that included a proviso that a time bank component must be included in the running of three mental health day centres to ensure that clients are involved in the co-delivery of services.
He says: ‘I started this in the age of Reagan and Thatcher and, boy, haven’t we come a long way since then? Your politicians talking about community cohesion at the party conferences would have been laughed off the stage back then, so maybe we’re moving in the right direction.’
But it’s his scheme’s capacity to build community collaboration that sparks the most passion in Cahn. ‘I look at the ways in which your government has created a whole array of statutory services that are in many ways a lot more civilised than the way we do things in the US,’ he says. ‘But I would still say that somewhere in the process something has gone wrong. If you’re constantly defining people by what they lack or need, it’s not difficult for people to lose sense of what they have to give. And it’s not a humane way to live. ‘
His father, also a civil rights lawyer, instilled a sense of social justice in Cahn from an early age. Yet it was his family’s reaction to his engagement to an African-American woman when he was 18 that honed his determination to put the principles he believed in into practice on the ground. ‘When I announced my engagement, they told me I was throwing my career away,’ he says. ‘Their reaction profoundly shocked me.’
His father told him that if he went ahead with an interracial marriage, the only job he’d get would be as a janitor. ‘I did end up being a janitor,’ he says. ‘But it let me put my wife through law school, and then she put me through law school, and we ended up founding the first clinical law school in the US, so we proved them all wrong.’
Today’s challenge is, says Cahn, to concentrate on the next stage of working out ‘how we build sustainable bridges between the core economy and the market economy’. His trip to the UK is partly to help the New Economics Foundation investigate ways to do this and help plug holes in local economies so the money directed into poor communities isn’t just, in Cahn’s words, ‘going straight back out to the multinationals or into the pay packets of middle-class professionals.’
He says: ‘If time banking can put people on a path to learning skills and finding employment, then great. But if the path that got them there has made them want to stay and contribute to both the social and economic currency of their community, then even better.’