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Below the line: Poverty in America

Official figures say 46 million Americans live in poverty. Beyond that, there's little about poverty that Americans can agree on.

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Many a sensible person might ask, "If you don't have anything to eat, aren't canned peas better than nothing?" But Linger says that deprivation of choice is precisely what helps keep the poor impoverished. "Choosing is empowering. Once you realize you do have control and have the opportunity to make some choices, that can carry over. You can realize your decisions impact how you live," Linger says.

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Sometimes, that control means forgoing the very assistance you qualify for. Ronnie Bennefield of Detroit is a former chef not so much down on his luck as too in love with the ladies. His interest in women, and a onetime drug habit, led him down wrong roads, from which he's still recovering. But even though he's entitled to food stamps, he refuses them: "It's too much red tape."

Poor only on paper

But in other cases, that control means choosing a life that makes you poor – but only on paper. That's what Kacey Orr did at her home on her grandfather's farm, just outside Wheeling. Perhaps the rolling hills of West Virginia are kinder than the mean streets of Detroit and give a person like her more choice than a guy like Mr. Bennefield might feel. Perhaps it's about more than that.

Right now, for Ms. Orr, it's all about poultry: "The chickens are all named after West Virginia counties. We've got Braxton, Jackson, Logan, Marshall, Boone, and Pocahontas," she says, rapid-fire. "They lived in my bathroom for three months as chicks, so we're close."

They gather around her ankles; she leans over and pulls an egg from the wood chips.

Orr walks around the bright red henhouse she built in her front yard with her father. He was a key player in her decision, a year ago, to give up her hair salon business and become an organic farmer – precisely the kind of life from which her grandfather meant to shield the next generations. "In my grandparents' mind[s], farming is something you do only if you can't do anything else," she says.

So Orr's father went to college, but he kept the farm's secrets. "He knows so much," says Orr. "He knows where the blackberry bushes are hidden in the woods and how to keep groundhogs out of the garden without having to shoot them."

According to the government, Orr lives in poverty. She makes $300 a week selling jam and fresh vegetables at the Wheeling Farmers Market. "If you didn't live here, you would say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' I'm poor technically, but I don't feel poor. I don't go out to eat, ever; I haven't been to a movie in five years. I don't take vacation. But it's OK, because now my life is a vacation."

She may be cash-poor, but Orr feels resource-rich. She eats what she grows, and she uses her creativity to bridge budget gaps. In May, when her plants were still too young to harvest and sell, she used her family's 85-year-old rhubarb plants to make massive batches of jam.

Her resourcefulness extends beyond the organic: "I will dig through your garbage." And she has, using other people's discarded furniture to make wood pellets for her chicken coops and cast-off windows and doors to build a frame for her cold house, a kind of off-the-grid greenhouse, where she plans to grow spinach and lettuce right through the winter.

If this is poverty, it's chosen poverty. Orr says she made around $40,000 a year cutting people's hair, "but it was killing my mind." It's poverty overlain on a preexisting infrastructure: She lives in her grandfather's home, grows heirloom crops on land that's been in her family for five generations, sows corn with an improvised planter her great-grandfather made from two sticks and a coffee can. She's also enrolled in a master's degree program, so she has student loans.

But all of that would be invisible on the form she'd have to fill out to get government help. "I more than qualify for food stamps or utilities assistance," she says. "But I would never, ever do that. I am able-bodied and smart enough to figure it out. That money's not there for me."

•Anna Clark contributed reporting from Detroit.

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