12 Jul 2020

Covid-19: Why a Washington town is printing its own wooden money

From Sunday Morning, 11:29 am on 12 July 2020

After watching Covid-19 wreak havoc on his community, the mayor of a small US town started printing wooden money to help locals get through.

Wooden money printed by Tennino, Washington.

Wooden money printed by Tennino, Washington. Photo: SUPPLIED

Tenino mayor Wayne Fournier told Sunday Morning he looked to the past when coming up with the idea to print wooden currency.

Local leaders had come together to think about how they could help community members who were struggling amid the Covid-19 crisis. An idea that "rose to the top" was printing money - something the community did back in 1931 during the Great Depression.

They dug out the same printing press used to print money almost a century ago from the museum, and put it to use.

The money holds the value of $US1 and is backed by the city government, which acts as the treasury.

Locals can apply for up to $300 a month and can only spend the money in Tenino, which has a population of just 1800. It can't be used on alcohol, cigarettes or on gambling.

Fournier said the town had been saving for an emergency, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which had impacted many in the small Washington state community, was the time to dig into the funds.

He described how one woman, a school bus driver, was continuing to be paid her base rate but was missing out on extra pay, which she usually received for school trips. The base rate meant she was basically in poverty, and her hearing aids had been repossessed as she couldn't make her payments. 

"Because she's been harmed by this she's eligible for $300 a month of wooden money and she's been able to take care of her groceries and her gas and things like that and hopefully that's going to be able to give her the relief she needs to be able to maintain her hearing aid payments, pay her water bills. 

"At the end of it hopefully she'll be able to come out of it where she's not going to be horribly in debt."

The money was "novel", "interesting", and "kind of sexy" because it was a bit rebellious, Fournier said. There was a lot of interest in the idea from outside the community - and even internationally. 

"We now have people from outside of our borders, so outside of the city, who are willing to pay more than the face value. There are some people who are willing to offer seven times the face value of the currency that we're printing, so our Tenino dollars are worth more than the US dollar right now in an exchange rate sense."

At some point the city will likely stop printing the money and might sell the notes to collectors, but there was interest in continuing a local currency programme.

For now, the money continues to lift people out of hardship and also lift people's spirits, Fournier said. 

"There is a lot of pride in independence. And to provide hope, people need to have something to hang onto, they need to know there is a community they are part of, and that, I believe, can also be shown here."