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Unleashing Our Hidden Wealth

Our most valuable qualities--our capacity to give and the sense of self we get in doing so--are irrelevant to the suicide economy

We worship money. We are unaware of the appalling price we pay for excessive reliance on that measuring rod. Our vision—intellectual, emotional, moral—our perception of what we call reality has been distorted by examining everything through the lens of money.

Photo courtesy of Time Dollar
Tutoring
Photo courtesy of Time Dollar Tutoring
When we see our communities failing, families falling apart, neighborhoods deteriorating, clean air and water becoming scarcer, and open space disappearing, we feel helpless to address the problems because we only know how to use money to solve them. We have let money devalue the very characteristics that define our humanity and that enabled our species to survive: Our universal capacity to care for each other, to learn from mistakes, to come together to act in concert. Small wonder, then, that we feel helpless to take effective action.

But we do not have to stand by helpless. Local currencies in communities around the world are revealing hidden sources of wealth. When we see the wealth we have available to us, we can do more to create and spread it. One such currency is Time Dollars, which I created in 1980 as a tax-exempt medium of exchange that rewards sinking roots, staying in place, accepting responsibility, building community, maintaining family. But when I created Time Dollars, I had no idea how many ways Time Dollars might be used.

The very groups whose labor the market devalues, rejects or exploits have demonstrated the effectiveness of Time Dollars in helping them to redefine themselves as contributors and partners in child care, juvenile justice, mental health, public housing, community development, offender rehabilitation, and elder care. A compelling illustration is found in a realm that many regard as beyond repair: public education.

Reclaiming throwaway kids
Chicago schools have been among the worst in the nation. In 1995, Mayor Daley appointed his chief budget officer, Paul Vallas, to reform the school system. I had a problem with Vallas' solution of bringing in 10,000 tutors from the outside. Research showed that outside tutors help individuals, but don't necessarily change the system; it showed that what works is cross-age peer tutoring—older kids tutoring younger kids.

I asked Vallas to let me try it out in some schools in Englewood—one of the most troubled neighborhoods on the South Side. Englewood had been dubbed a killing zone. We had to make it safe for a kid to be caught learning. The quickest way to do that seemed to be to get older kids to reward younger kids with praise for getting right answers. That would make it better than safe to learn; it would win the younger kids approval and (as we found out) actual physical protection.

At the beginning, the principals all asked whether we wanted just the bright students, the honor students, as tutors. We said no. We took anyone who volunteered and stuck it out. Some had already been classified special education kids, attention deficit kids, problem kids. But kids flocked to us because we made an offer. We promised a recycled computer to every student who earned 100 Time Dollars tutoring other kids.

One hour of helping another earns one Time Dollar. 1=1. No PhD in economics is required. The government does not tax this currency that is based only on caring for others and enforced only by the moral obligation to return the care. For the IRS, mere moral obligation is no more taxable than fairy dust.

A lot of the kids who volunteered to tutor had been programmed by the system to believe that they were dumb. They already knew how the system viewed them: They just didn't have it and would never make it.

The decision to accept all who volunteered proved a special blessing—though we can claim no credit for that. When these kids whose self-esteem was at rock bottom looked at a homework assignment for a first or second grader, it looked easy to them. And so they figured that if they could do it, anyone could do it. The result was that they imposed high expectations on the first and second graders.

Remember, these tutors were the throwaway kids. Suddenly, they became educators, teachers. And they had something that no adult teacher has. They were peers—and better yet, older peers. Every kid seems to want praise and acceptance from an older kid.

The older kids made it fun to learn. We found out from the principals that attendance actually went up on after-school tutoring days. Kids came to school in order to tutor or be tutored.

The older kids made it safe to learn on two levels. First, peer acceptance was either automatic or irrelevant. Either nobody taunted the kids as uncool for being smart, or the label lost its power to prevent learning because something better—an older kid's praise, approval, and friendship—could be earned by learning. Secondly, the bullying and after-school fighting stopped. It was to be expected that tutors wouldn't beat up their tutees; what we hadn't anticipated was that they wouldn't let anyone else beat them up either. Learning bought you a protector. Not bad.

Something else began to happen as well. Some of the not-so-special older students started to get good grades for the first time. It takes higher-order skills to teach lower-order skills. So these older kids were not only brushing up on their basics and building a better foundation, they were problem solving, practicing communication, framing and testing hypotheses as to what it would take to get their tutee to learn. Small wonder that those skills began to show up in their own studies.

Reclaiming parents
For many Englewood parents, coming to school was associated with unpleasant memories—from their own childhood as students, and again as parents being given bad news about their kids. So the rules for participation in the Time Dollar program were written to require a parental contribution. Even after earning 100 Time Dollars, no child could take home a computer until a parent had earned eight Time Dollars helping at the school. You had better believe that no parent knew any peace at home until they had done what they needed to do. But the joy on these parents' faces, and their sense of pride in having helped their child get a computer, spoke volumes—to us and to their kids.

One mother told me that the only time she had been to the school before the Time Dollar program was to get bad reports on her child's performance. Until now she had dreaded coming to the school. Now, she had come to help out, and she felt enormous pride in seeing her own child helping younger children.

One seventh-grader's mother died two months before he was due to get his computer. He hadn't seen his father for six years, but he was so determined to claim what he had earned that he hunted his father down. The father, proud to be reunited with his son, earned the eight Time Dollars needed. He didn't stop there, though; he decided to take over as parent, full time, permanently.

The first year, we lost one kid to a gang shooting. His parents came to us with two requests: Would we include in the boy's obituary that he was a tutor and was working to earn a computer? That's how they felt he would have wanted to be remembered. And would we let his younger brother take over where he left off? They wanted those Time Dollars to be a kind of legacy so that the younger brother could finish earning the computer by building on the Time Dollars his older brother had earned. You never know what's going to hit you hardest, the triumph or the tears. But you know that there's no going back.

The tangible reward itself had a special poetry to it. We rounded up old computers that no one else wanted from military bases, insurance companies, law firms, and wherever we could find them. Those throwaway computers can help bridge the great and growing digital divide between the haves and the have-nots in this new Information Age.

The real reward, though, is not the computer but what earning that computer symbolizes. It says, “By helping others, you can create for yourself a new future.” It means that we have the power to reclaim throwaway kids, throwaway parents, and throwaway computers—to create a genuine learning community with no limits. That's happening. It's powered by kids and computers and parents.

The focus of the Time Dollar program was not on what this community lacked, but what it had. Kids were not empty vessels to fill, cracked vessels to repair, or defective merchandise to relegate to the scrap heap. They were producers, earners, learners, mentors. And they had proof. In fact, they had three kinds of proof: A Time Dollar bank statement recording their hours; a computer—a symbol of approval so important and so valid that even their parents had been willing to earn some Time Dollars to get it; and one or more new buddies—a tutor they could look up to, or a tutee they had helped and would protect. In short, Time Dollars helped unleash the wealth that was already there by reclaiming people (and computers) society was prepared to throw away.

Time Dollars don't work just for kids. Consider this story captured by a PBS documentary: Two men, both retired, had lived within a block of each other all their lives but without the Time Dollar program never would have known each other. Now they are a Time Dollar home repair crew, fixing old toilets with jury-rigged parts while the arthritic but beaming resident looks on. She has worked all day earning the Time Dollars to pay for the repairs by preparing a seven-course meal, served on her best china. As they take seats around her prized dining room table, festive with table cloth and candles, one of the men wisecracks, “I guess we won't have to go to McDonald's tonight.”

When I created Time Dollars, the logical side of me reasoned: People are assets; they are our real wealth. We have to redefine those activities we honor as work to include the tasks essential to our species, like rearing children, building community, caring for elders. We have to stop conceiving of the world as the sum of individual, private transactions and appreciate the importance of social networks and social capital built upon trust, reciprocity, and civic engagement. That was the logical side of me.

Tending the neglected economy
The truth is that I created Time Dollars not only out of logic, but out of outrage. I wanted the currency to declare: It is time we draw a line in the sand. It is time we say: No more throwaway people. It is time we declare that we will not demand subordination, peonage, or passivity as the price for providing help to a human being in need. And it is time we stop strip mining our villages and our families by requiring all adults to leave home, leave the neighorhood, leave the village to work for Mammon and the market. There is other work to be done. There is another economy that needs tending, the core economy of home and family and village.

Time Dollars enable us to develop an awareness of how money distorts our calculation of what is possible. Money distorts our view of what people can do, what people are willing to do, whom you can trust, what motivates people, what human nature is—and what it is possible for us to achieve. The extent to which artificial limits and external costs are built into money becomes clear when we alter the currency. A different world and a different set of possibilities emerge.

In a world with the technological capacity to produce goods in abundance, we need not tolerate the vast deprivation and waste of human capacity that we see. In a world that values work and the work ethic, we can tap the capacity of every human being to contribute something of value. In such a world, there is no reason why all human beings willing to contribute by helping, teaching, and nurturing others cannot at least enjoy basic sustenance, roofs over their heads, care when ill, and above all, opportunities to learn, to develop, and to blossom.

If there is no reason why we cannot create such a world, there is no longer reason for tolerating the pain, the deprivation, the suffering that now abounds.


.Edgar Cahn is the creator of Time Dollars; professor of law, University of the District of Columbia David A. Clark School of Law; co-founder, National Legal Services Program; and the author of a number of books including No More Throwaway People, from which this article was adapted.

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