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It is no secret that West Virginia median household incomes are among the lowest in the nation.

Clearly, the recent holiday season was not a happy one for many West Virginians. Now, there is the deadly cornonavirus threat, as well. A significant number of the state’s residents are not in a position to obtain a full, healthy life or to compete for a fair share of the economic pie. As a result, many new initiatives might be needed to ensure life and basic living standards.

One new initiative is the Time Dollar Network. Developed by Edgar Cahn, a retired professor at the District of Columbia School of Law, the Time Dollar Network creates value from relationships in the social infrastructure and is based on trust and reciprocity.

According to Cahn, there is ample productive capacity to meet need.

He says: “The problem is finding a distribution system that works equitably, that enables all people to gain adequate access to the abundance this country has the capacity to produce. Work used to perform this function. The work ethic was the official mechanism for distributing wealth. But the work ethic is in trouble because work itself is in trouble. It no longer functions to provide minimal access to a decent standard of living. If everyone must be given the chance to secure a minimally decent standard of living — without promoting dependency — work must be redefined so as to compensate those socially important tasks that need to be done but that are undervalued or uncompensated by the market economy.”

Cahn notes that compensation “cannot be paid in dollars because dollars must circulate in a global economy; pricing determined in that economy sets a wage ceiling on most work. The dollars needed to pay a decent wage for all that labor simply are not available — either from taxes or private sources. But the underlying asset, human time, caring time, is available if a way can be found to tap it.”

Cahn formed the Time Dollar Institute to help local community groups and nonprofit organizations create a local tax-exempt currency called Time Dollars. This makes it possible to generate social capital and pay people in a currency that enables them to exchange an hour of their time for an hour of someone else’s time. People earn Time Dollars by helping others.

Computerized Time Dollar accounting systems help mobilize human resources to provide the direct service. Time Dollars are more than simply an inexpensive way to expand specialized social service programs with volunteers. They do something else.

Cahn notes: “The Time Dollar currency enables human beings to redefine themselves as assets, each and every one with something special to contribute — regardless of what the market economy says. When all hours are valued equally, when the tasks are essentially those which families and neighbors have always done for each other, when the obligation to repay is backed by a moral norm of reciprocity rather than a legal norm of coercion, one is outside the realm of the Internal Revenue Service, outside the market economy, and outside the constraints of feasibility imposed by market wages and the availability of tax dollars and building social capital.”

Time Dollar programs generate this social capital in several different ways. They strengthen community of place and counter the centrifugal tendency of money to uproot community in pursuit of maximum return. They create and reinforce an ethos of reciprocity because each hour spent creates both an expectation and an indebtedness. They drive an information system one can trust, that does not otherwise exist. They create a social etiquette that makes it permissible to reach out to help others without invading their space and makes it possible to accept help without feeling one is accepting charity.

The Time Dollar concept is being explored by the Southern Appalachian Labor School for communities in Fayette County. People interested in knowing more about creating economic value through the Time Dollar Network may contact Time Bank USA at BankUSA.

John David is a Gazette-Mail

contributing columnist.