Ithaca Blog

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Help for Underemployment in Ithaca

The Ithaca Times published an insightful article today on the phenomenon of '"underemployment" in Ithaca.

The situation, basically, is that Ithaca is a desirable place to live, but without a surplus of large employers or jobs.

The appeal of Ithaca is easy to see. It is beautiful, safe, friendly, pleasant, and cosmopolitan.

Thousands of people come to Ithaca from around the country and the world because of Cornell University, and many want to stay, at least for a while. To people from New York City, Ithaca can seem a lovely, lively alternative to stressful urban situations. And in central and upstate New York, Ithaca is a cultural oasis.

There is a driven population, therefore, looking for work.

The unemployment level in Tompkins County is perennially the lowest in New York State. On the face of it, that seems good. But it also means a perennial scarcity of jobs.

And it means a low wage structure, even at large and elite workplaces. An adminstrator at Cornell, for example, makes a fraction of what the same job would pay at Columbia University in New York. Of course, the cost of living in higher in New York, but not for everything. For housing, certainly. But it costs the same here as there for food, clothing, taxes, a car, gas, a college education for your children, and most other things.

The problem of underemployment led to the founding of two unique institutions in Ithaca: the Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and Ithaca Hours.

Alternatives says plainly in its mission statement, "Alternatives is dedicated to economic justice, to building wealth and creating economic opportunity for underserved people and communities."

The basic fees at Alternatives are well below industry norms. Savings accounts have no monthly charges or transaction fees, and only a five dollar minimum balance requirement. Checking accounts are free: no monthly fees, and no transaction fees.

Beyond the basics, Alternatives has a raft of innovative programs for building savings, borrowing easily and fairly, managing resources, and creating new opportunities.

Aware of the number of poor and working people who are not getting tax benefits such as the Earned Income Credit, the credit union started a program of preparing members' tax statements, for free. The credit union also offers free, extensive credit counseling.

Alternatives has a remarkable program called the Individual Development Account. An individual who saves $1000 in an IDA receives double that amount in matching funds through the program.

For information about these and other Alternatives features, call the credit union at 273-4611, or visit

Ithaca Hours is a local currency system started in the 1990's specifically to help with the problem of underemployment. The thinking was, there were people in the community with needs, and people with resources. The only thing keeping them apart was money, or the lack of it. The solution was to create new money, to enable transactions to happen.

Since then, Hours has grown into a bona fide revenue stream for Tompkins County, with over $120,000 worth of Hours in circulation, and a new issuance of perhaps another $30,000 planned.

Many businesses accept Hours in partial payment (some in full) to attract customers. Hours publishes a Directory that provides inexpensive advertising for businesses, and for moonlighters.

Researchers have lauded Hours for its "multiplier effect" of creating economic transactions. Because Hours do not leave the area, studies show, an Hour spent will create up to 30 times more transactions locally than a dollar will.

The local scope of the currency helps small, independent businesses to compete with larger chain stores from outside the area. Observers have noted the relative health of Ithaca's downtown compared to other cities in central New York, and the growth of local institutions such as the Farmers Market.

For more information about Ithaca Hours, visit their website,

Stephen Burke
for Ithaca Blog

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