Dan Kerr, now an assistant professor at American University, lived as a squatter 20 years ago in Manhattan's Lower East Side and says the lifestyle was a way to challenge the notion that "the one-family home with a 9-to-5 job" was "the only way to provide meaning to our lives."
That New York neighborhood is still a hotspot for street kids, or "gutter punks." A 23-year-old who identified himself as "Banjo" (then admitted that wasn't his name) came to the city for Occupy Wall Street and now hangs out on the eastern tip of 14th street. He explained his choice as more relevant than ever: "We saw how mortgage companies screwed people," he said. "The economy is a joke. We travel all over, and people help us out."
At Sycamore House, an intentional community in Harrisburg, Pa., young people volunteer with nonprofits in exchange for food, rent, and a $400 monthly stipend.
Emmy Corey, the program's director, said that a third of residents signed up after struggling to find work after college. "Doing this has offered more security than the job market," she said.
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Of course, no matter how bad the job market is, there are clear distinctions between those who have the privilege to opt for poverty and those who are poor through no choice of their own. If things get rough, Price has a career to fall back on. Banjo can return to his childhood bedroom, where he stayed before hitting the road. Corey's young charges aren't stuck in high-crime neighborhoods with subpar schools and services like most of America's poor. And people who choose poverty are often free to make exceptions; despite his otherwise modest lifestyle, Price pays $53 a month for a cell phone and owns both an iPad and a MacBook Air.
The demographics of these two groups are also starkly different: The pockets of people who choose poverty are nearly all white, experts say, while around half of the impoverished in the U.S. are black and Hispanic.
For people involuntarily living on four figures a year, upward mobility would be a gift, not a trap. "Those people know that if they gave everything up, it wouldn't be so easy to get it back," said Kerr. Many have trouble understanding why privileged people would turn their nose up at creature comforts, "especially if you grew up yearning for these things," said Halnon.
Still, some among the intentional poor believe their lifestyle can serve as a model for anyone who narrowly defines success as being wealthy. "People are so incredibly spoiled," said Price. He prioritizes self-reliance and feels strongly about never using food stamps or welfare. "My job is simply to live as pure and authentic as I can and make an example for people."
Sometimes, though, intentional poverty isn't a rejection of mainstream success so much as a deliberate means to it.