These stories feature characters or families living and coping with poverty. Sometimes they’re just trying to get by; other times they’re trying to better their lives.
Here are some stories that might interest an avid reader, or that might be suitable short stories for middle school kids.
See also American Dream
The Lesson | Tony Cade Bambara
An inner-city class goes on a field trip to an expensive toy store. The children try to understand the differences in people’s wealth.
The Skylight Room | O. Henry
A young woman stays in the cheapest room at a boarding house. She’s very popular with her fellow guests.
Bunner Sisters | Edith Wharton
Two middle-aged sisters run a small shop and live modestly. They start keeping company with a local clock seller, which changes their usual routine.
This is a novella-length story.
The Overcoat | Nikolai Gogol
A poor government clerk, Akaky, gets teased at work over his ragged overcoat. He tries to get it repaired, but the tailor declares it a lost cause. Akaky lives on a strict budget to save up for a new one.
Internal Monologue on a Corner in Havana | Josefina de Diego
A man living on a small disability pension stands on a corner trying to sell a cigarette so he can get a small meal. He thinks about his own situation and about the people who walk by.
Sweet Potato Pie | Eugenia Collier
Buddy looks back on his poor upbringing, and how his family supported him to break the chain of poverty.
Leaving the Yellow House | Saul Bellow
Hattie, seventy-two-years-old, lives alone and follows a regular weekly routine. One day, she has an accident that threatens her independence.
Maybe Next Year | Norman Mailer
A boy goes walking in a field and along the train tracks when his parents start arguing. The husband is berated for not making enough money and not spending time with the boy. Many people are out of work; the boy is warned to stay away from the filthy and diseased old men in the area.
Read “Maybe Next Year” (scroll back a bit)
The Hammon and the Beans | Americo Paredes
The narrator recalls growing up in the 1920’s in small-town Texas with a company of soldiers stationed nearby because of border troubles. He remembers especially a little girl, Chonita, who was known for trying to speak English and for getting leftover food from the soldiers’ cooks.
Night Women | Edwidge Danticat
A prostitute works at home next to her young, sleeping son. She’s concerned about his eventual realization of what she does, but in the meantime, tells him she does herself up at night in case an angel arrives.
The House on Mango Street | Sandra Cisneros
A family moves out of their flat when the water pipes break; they move into a house, which they have always wanted.
This is a collection of linked stories, sometimes considered a novel. The first chapter is the title story.
The Bucket Rider | Franz Kafka
A freezing man goes to the local coal dealer to beg for a shovelful of coal.
The Train from Rhodesia | Nadine Gordimer
When a train stops at a poor, rural town the locals approach the windows to sell their wares and beg for pennies. An old African man tries to sell a carved lion to a couple, but they think the price is too high.
Walker Brothers Cowboy | Alice Munro
After going bankrupt, the Jordan family moves to the poor side of town. One day the narrator, a young girl, goes with her father, now a door to door salesman, on some of his sales calls.
Looking for Mr. Green | Saul Bellow
During the Great Depression, George Grebe works delivering relief checks to handicapped people. He has difficulty finding some of the recipients, particularly Mr. Green.
An Evening in Spring | Ivan Bunin
A beggar walks around a village, but the people aren’t generous. He ends up in a tavern where he is accosted by a peasant who gives him a hard time.
Exchange Value | Charles Johnson
Cooter and Loftis, brothers, break into an elderly woman’s apartment. The woman had worked as a maid and been poor her whole life, so the brothers are stunned by what they find.
A Letter to God | Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes
Lencho is trying to grow enough food for his family. He is confident in this year’s crop; a good rain is coming. It ends up raining and hailing, ruining the crop, inciting Lencho to write a letter.
Maternity | Lilika Nakos
Mikali is a fourteen-year-old father and refugee. His underfed baby cries a lot, disturbing the others. He decides to go to another camp in search of a nursing mother.
Home | Gwendolyn Brooks
A family waits on the front porch for the man of the house to come home. He’s trying to get an extension on the mortgage payments, so the family is worried about losing their house.
Anyuta | Anton Chekhov
Anyuta lives in a cheap hotel room with a medical student, Klotchkov. She’s lived with several men like him; they all leave her behind when they move on to a better life.
The Spinoza of Market Street | Isaac Bashevis Singer
Dr. Fichelson, a philosopher, lives by the rationalist teachings of Spinoza. He lives on a small income after being fired from his post as librarian at a synagogue, due to his views, which contradict Jewish doctrine.
Life in the Iron Mills | Rebecca Harding Davis
Hugh lives in poverty and works at a foundry. His cousin, Deborah, works long hours at a cotton mill. Despite doing physical, demanding, and uncreative work, Hugh has an artist’s sensibility, sculpting in his free time. One evening, an opportunity arises for Deborah to better their situation.
This story is a novella.
Marcovaldo at the Supermarket | Italo Calvino
Marcovaldo and his family are out one evening for a walk. They have no money, but they go into a supermarket to watch others shop. The pressure of the rampant consumerism gets to the family.
Rules of the Game | Amy Tan
A mother/daughter relationship is explored as the daughter learns to play chess and progresses from her first tournament at age eight and continues as she becomes a stronger player. Her father works all day and the family doesn’t have a lot of money.
What Do You Do With Your Old Coffee Grounds? | Howard Lindsay
A newly married man introduces his wife to his mother. His wife is an actress and they live comfortably. His mother grew up poor and is very frugal.
In the Steppes | Maxim Gorky
Three drifters are walking across the steppe looking for a shepherd to beg some bread. They walk on, their hunger getting worse. Eventually, they decide they have to stop and make a fire.
A Field of Wheat | Sinclair Ross
A husband and wife in their late thirties, beaten down from years of hard work, live in poverty on their farm. This year the wheat crop is the best it’s ever been, and there is hope of a large payout as wheat prices are high.
Read “A Field of Wheat” (PDF page 45)
Daughter | Erskine Caldwell
The Sheriff locks up Jim in the town jail. Lots of people come by to get the details, asking him if it was an accident. He says his daughter was hungry, and she had been a lot lately.
See also: Thanks for the Ride / Marigolds (Coming of Age)
I will try to add more stories about poverty that could be helpful for teaching reading and reading comprehension to middle and high school students. Eventually, I hope these pages will become a teaching resource.