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Living on $5,000 a year, on purpose: Meet America's 'intentional poor'

Take a look at Dan Price's ultra-cheap lifestyle, starting with the home he built from scrap wood that he calls his Hobbit hole.
John Brecher | NBC News
Take a look at Dan Price's ultra-cheap lifestyle, starting with the home he built from scrap wood that he calls his Hobbit hole.

More than two decades ago, then-33-year-old Dan Price had a wife, two small children, a high-interest mortgage, and a stressful job as a photojournalist in Kentucky. He worried daily about money and the workaday grind.

"I told myself, 'buck up and pay the bills,'" said Price. "This is just the way normal life is."

Then he learned about what he calls "the simple life." Price read "Payne Hollow," a 1974 book about author Harlan Hubbard's rejection of modernity and his primitive home on the shore of the Ohio River. Price's marriage dissolved soon after, and the whole family moved to Oregon, where he grew up. Price opted to move alone into a tiny cabin in the woods, then a flophouse, then a teepee, and finally into an underground "Hobbit hole" on a horse pasture near a river, where he still lives. During the winter, he decamps to Hawaii to surf and avoid the harsh weather.

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Price's version of the simple life costs $5,000 a year, which he earns from publishing a wilderness zine and doing odd jobs around Joseph, his eastern Oregon town. "I like being able to do what I want to do," said Price, who pays $100 a year for his land. "I don't believe in houses or mortgages. Who in their right mind would spend their lifetime paying for a building they never get to spend time in because they are always working?"

Price is part of a long tradition of eschewing the American dream of a house with a white-picket fence, from 1920s hobos to 1960s hippies. Nowadays, groups going back-to-basics are just as diverse, such as live-off-the-land types like Price, punky street kids, and twentysomethings living in modest group homes known as intentional communities. But they all have something in common: They've chosen poverty.

Some, like Price, have lived this way for decades. For others, it's a decision spurred by the recession and its exposure of economic precarity. Either way, it's often a political choice, one that questions a consumerist, deeply stratified society. The intentional poor are "looking for something real that goes beyond commodity," said Karen Halnon, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of "Consumption of Inequality."

Amy Hayden sits in the room she rents for $135 per week in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. Utilities are included, but when her landlord said air conditioning would cost her an extra $5 per week, Hayden instead bought this fan on Craigslist.
John Brecher | NBC News
Amy Hayden sits in the room she rents for $135 per week in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. Utilities are included, but when her landlord said air conditioning would cost her an extra $5 per week, Hayden instead bought this fan on Craigslist.

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.

After being laid off twice from journalism jobs in Chicago, Amy Hayden, 40, moved to New York City last year with $50 in the bank and a dream of working in publishing. She was inspired by reading the memoir "Just Kids" by singer Patti Smith, who arrived penniless in New York in the late '60s determined to make it as an artist.

"I hear a lot of messages about how you can't be an artist in New York anymore," said Hayden. "That makes me angry, because you can. It just depends what kinds of changes you want to make."

Hayden now lives on $1,000 a month or less, renting a tiny room for $135 a week and picking up blogger jobs and one-shot gigs between her publishing internship hours. She plans to write a book about living frugally in New York. If a literary agency offered her a job tomorrow, she'd take it, but she wouldn't "sell out" and go into marketing or PR. She's made the choice "not to just look for any job."

At least for now.

While Price vows to live simply until he dies, Hayden expects to do this for no more than three years. Kerr, too, abandoned the squatter life for graduate school, and eventually, a stable university job — studying voluntary homelessness.

In 1995, Kerr recalls, there was a squatter eviction on 13th Street, a moment that separated the privileged from the stagnant poor in dramatic fashion. "I could go back home to Cleveland," said Kerr. "Some of the other squatters weren't so lucky."

—By Nona Willis-Aronowitz, NBC News contributor.

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