ST. LOUIS. — A new form of exchange called "time dollars" is flourishing where regular cash is short in this city's poor black neighborhoods.
The new exchange simply formalizes traditional quid-pro-quo neighborhood help by expanding one-to-one relationships to thousands of people.
But for socially chaotic neighborhoods, the time dollars are also a powerful new organizing tool linked by the latest technology -- a sophisticated computer network, with terminals in neighborhood leaders' homes, in police stations and libraries. Members earn a time dollar for each hour they spend watching a neighborhood's child, cooking a meal for an elderly person or any other task.
Then, when they need services themselves -- moving furniture, or some modest home repairs, for example -- other neighbors do the jobs for them. At month's end, they receive a computer-generated statement listing the time hours they performed for others as credits, and those received as debits.
Creator and sponsor of the program is Grace Hill, a settlement house loosely affiliated with the Episcopal Church.
Since its founding 90 years ago to help immigrants adapt to living in St. Louis, the organization has seen the rise and eclipse of virtually every theory of helping the poor
By the '80s, notes Grace Hill president George Eberle, "we had gone through the War on Poverty, Model Cities, all sorts of social-work schemes. But nothing really changed for the people who lived in our neighborhoods. The numbers of poor kept increasing, and so did their isolation from mainstream society."
So Grace Hill decided on a radical step: to work on creating a viable alternative subculture, quite apart from the country's mainstream.
The goal is a subculture that is not destructive but rather enables people to achieve, to form their own healthy and supportive communities.
A central theme is to maximize self-service by neighborhood people and minimize the use of middle-class social-service workers from outside the area.
Today, the new system seems to be working. Talk to the young women leading Grace Hill's various operations -- community residents all -- and one is struck by their self-confidence and infectious enthusiasm.
Gloria Drake, for example, boasts to a visitor of how the time dollars program has expanded its hours of use from 9,000 last year to a likely 20,000 in 1993. "Our goal is 30,000. People think they have nothing to give, but the fact is everyone does," she says.
Linda Price, who spearheads a program encouraging low-income women to get their first jobs, or return to the work force, tells how the lessons of punctuality, resume writing and career dressing are inculcated on a peer-to-peer basis. ("If they don't have a dress or suit to wear for an interview, we lend them one and tell them -- 'If you get the job, you keep the outfit."')
Geraldine Gandy explains a "team system" to serve the elderly -- a corps of some 1,400 younger and active senior citizens who visit those who are frail or housebound, providing friendly human contact, helping to prepare meals and picking up medications.
Grace Hill's companion Eldertel program, Ms. Gandy says, brings together the elderly and elementary schoolchildren for storytelling by the elderly.
Linda Williams, a nurse's assistant, explains how she visits pregnant women and infants, goes into homes to teach techniques of prenatal care, and has learned to analyze risk factors from smoking to drugs to a history of complications in earlier pregnancies.
And then she demonstrates, on a computer, how she keeps track of each woman's entire pregnancy history and helps each woman make the right steps at the right time.
There are 900 to 1,000 at-risk pregnancies in Grace Hill neighborhoods each year, and far too few skilled public-health nurses to do the job. So neighbors do most of the visiting and counseling, under the nurses' supervision.
Parenting classes are a logical follow-on, and Ms. Williams tells of teaching teen-age mothers "to learn what's going on with your children without having to slap them on the head every day."
What Grace Hill has been creating, in short, is a new form of community targeted on building up people's sense of self-worth and potential through mutual support.
By helping people acquire skills to solve their own problems, it creates a more economical and promising form than the social-service community's newest wrinkle -- providing a "case manager" to coordinate the array of uncoordinated programs visited on suffering people and communities.
Grace Hill's method is not a perfect tool. So far it has done little for impoverished black men, many of whom in today's inner cities are a peril both to themselves and their neighborhoods. Mr. Eberle explains that Grace Hill decided to focus on women, who because of their children have more stability than men.
He's heartbroken, says Mr. Eberle, when he gets a call saying, "My kid's out of control, out on the street, selling dope, stealing my money, getting violent." But the chief opportunity to help families, he believes, is when the children are young and mothers' intense desire to guide them constructively can work -- if mom herself has hope.
Hope, in turn, is what the Grace Hill experiment is all about.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.