On the first Monday of July, the Equal Dollars Food Market looks much the same as it always has since its founding several years back. A group of people with full tote bags of produce mill about just outside the entrance to the market, which is located inside the Germantown headquarters of Resources for Human Development, the nonprofit that brought the alternative currency into being in 1996. A mix of grocery items—club sodas, lettuce, bread, tomatoes the size of softballs—are being sold, each for just one dollar, with one caveat: Equal Dollars are no longer accepted, which means all customers must pay in U.S. dollars instead.
The reason is that in February notes of Equal Dollars stopped being issued to the roughly 5,000 people who were part of the community currency’s membership network in the Greater Philadelphia area.
For 19 years, members of the network exchanged goods, services, and their labor for compensation in Equal Dollars; people who volunteered one to four hours of their time at the Food Market, for instance, would earn 25 Equal Dollars.
The currency itself was the brainchild of Bob Fishman, founder of RHD who stepped down as the nonprofit’s CEO last fall. Ten U.S. dollars bought membership to the network and a starting sum of 50 Equal Dollars. As a non-interest bearing currency, RHD’s thinking was that Equal Dollars could properly remunerate folks who cleaned streets and vacant lots, helped neighbors by running errands for them, gave tutoring lessons, as well as for a host of other services or goods—like refurbished bikes—that require more sweat equity than anything else.
“Every day, people of vulnerable populations are told that they don’t have value and are given handouts of food and other necessities,” said Equal Dollars director Deneene Brockington in a March statement announcing the end of the currency. Brockington was hired in 2008 to head up the Equal Dollars program, but was recently re-titled the Community Relations Director for RHD. “Equal Dollars was a program that encouraged that same population of people to not just accept a handout but to contribute their value to their communities in return for these goods and services.”
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“Every day, people of vulnerable populations are told that they don’t have value and are given handouts of food and other necessities,” said Equal Dollars director Deneene Brockington in a March statement announcing the end of the currency.
But the annual cost to RHD to keep Equal Dollars notes in circulation—$300,000 annually—was too high a price to bear any longer, Brockington told Generocity. Resources for Human Development, founded in 1970, oversees about 160 human service programs in 14 states; its yearly budget is about $230 million.
“It’s not something that’s easily fundable,” she said. “We tried to go after grants to get funding, but nobody was biting. In these times of financial uncertainty that all nonprofits are getting hit with right now, the organization had to take a look at how it was spending its resources.”
Some 500,000 notes of the currency—which came in denominations of 1, 5, 10, and 20—had been in circulation when RHD made its official announcement in March that the currency was being shut down. The Equal Dollars bank remained opened throughout the spring to allow members to spend down their accounts, but “by the time the bank officially closed, just about everybody had spent down to zero,” said Kevin Roberts, the communications manager at RHD, in an email.
Roberts also mentioned that while it’s “theoretically” possible that the 25 businesses and RHD projects, like the nonprofit’s consignment shop, that had been accepting Equal Dollars could still do so, there isn’t much a point in doing so now that the Equal Dollars bank is closed and no new notes are in circulation.
However, a new community currency is already in the works. Fishman founded a Pennsylvania nonprofit called Creativity in Human Design, which will soon do a first printing of a currency called Commons Currency. Generocity will keep track of the currency as it is developed.
Image via Equal Dollars website-30-
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