In other words, living within an income-sharing community like Twin Oaks means letting go of all but a modicum of financial independence.
But for some, giving up financial freedom also means a liberation from something else: the fear of some unseen nightmare – job loss, serious illness – resulting in financial ruin
Blue says Twin Oaks hit its current 91-member population cap in 2008 and has been at capacity since, after years of membership numbers fluctuating between the low 60s and high 80s. Member turatically since the financial crisis, he adds: Before 2008, roughly 25 people joined and left the commune each year; since 2008, the number has fallen to between five and 10.
For all its vision of economic separatism, Twin Oaks hitched its growth through the 1980s and 90s on the expanding success of a hearty little company called Pier 1 Imports. Founded in 1962 as a store selling beanbag chairs and incense in San Mateo, California, Pier 1 contracted Twin Oaks in the early 1970s to produce hand-woven hammocks, allowing Twin Oaks to establish a profitable internal industry.
As Pier 1 expanded, Twin Oaks grew, too. Supplying Pier 1 created so much profitable work that Twin Oaks farmed out production to Acorn, and to other intentional communities.
“I’m not sure they necessarily cared one way or another, but Pier 1 was a significant financial driver for the communities movement for quite a while,” Blue says.
But by the early 2000s, Twin Oaks members noticed that Pier 1’s hammock demand was down. In 2004, the home furnishings company – whose stock would dive from nearly $26 in mocks contract with Twin Oaks altogether.
Blue and Twin Oaks’ other Planners had to scramble to find a way to cut $50,000 from the budget that year.
Today, tofu-making is Twin Oaks’ biggest business, and it’s growing, though there are concerns within the community that “out in the mainstream,” as Twin Oaks members put it, tofu is a trendy food whose popularity could soon come to an end. Apparently opting out of consumer culture doesn’t preclude the need to spend plenty of time thinking about consumer trends.
It was as devastating as a major job loss would be for a family; it meant the disappearance of about a quarter of the community’s income
At an intentional community called Emerald Earth in rural Mendocino County, California, no central cottage industry supports members. Instead, it’s structured something like Twin Oaks in its early days: Members earn money from income-producing jobs in town, while communal living lowers costs for everyone.
But Abeja Hummel, a resident at Emerald Earth, confirms that in Mendocino County, earning potential has dropped since 2008. On top of that, per-adult monthly consumables for members have gone up, from $180 in 2009 to $265 today.
Hummel says her community is struggling to confront another problem as big as the economy itself: rising levels of student debt.
“With the cost of education skyrocketing, it is a rare person under 35 who is not burdened with debt,” she explained in a 2013 piece she wrote for Communities, a magazine for and about communes. “Our current community financial system makes it nearly impossible for the majority of young, intelligent, hardworking, educated folks to be able to live here without defaulting on loans.”
Student debt could threaten the future growth and long-term stability of Emerald Earth, and it’s a problem Hummel and her fellow community members discuss regularly. Hummel, age 42, has lived in intentional communities for most of the last 19 years. She says it “just made sense” to her that life should be built around work that has an inherent value – cultivating a vegetable garden, building a shed – rather than spending time in an office in exchange for that familiar but more abstract reward: money.