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.
“Hard Times” by Ron Rash
There are some eggs missing from the henhouse again. Jacob and Edna don’t have much. They’ve lost their truck and most of their livestock. Others have lost more. Their closest neighbors, the Hartley’s, have almost nothing. Jacob thinks about how to solve the mystery of his missing eggs.
“Hard Times” is the first story in the preview of Burning Bright: Stories.
“Why Chicken Means So Much to Me” by Sherman Alexie
The narrator tells us the worst thing about being poor. It’s not hunger, as you might think. He tells the story of the time his best friend Oscar got sick.
“Why Chicken Means So Much to Me” is the second story in the preview of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This book is full of great stories.
“Rules of the Game” by Amy Tan
Lindo is a mother and a Chinese immigrant. Her daughter, Waverly, is American born. Their 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.
This is the second story in the preview of Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction About Learning to Be American.
“Anyuta” by 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.
This story can be read in the preview of Stories of Anton Chekhov.
“The Overcoat” by 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.
This is a novella-length story.
The beginning of “The Overcoat” can be read in the Amazon preview of The Overcoat and Other Stories.
“The Lesson” by Toni 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 Lesson” is the first story in the Amazon preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story.
“Bunner Sisters” by 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 novella-length story can be read in the preview of Complete Works of Edith Wharton.
“An Evening in Spring” by 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.
This is the second story in the preview of Great Short Stories of the Masters.
“The Skylight Room” by O. Henry
A young woman stays in the cheapest room at a boarding house. She’s very popular with her fellow guests.
This is the fifth story in the preview of Complete Stories. (In the table of contents, select The Four Million, then the “The Skylight Room)
“The Cop and the Anthem” by O. Henry
Soapy, a vagrant, is in the park. Winter is in the air. To meet his needs, he wants to be sent to jail for about three months. He decides on a few petty crimes that will result in the desired sentence.
This is the ninth story in the preview of Complete Stories. (In the table of contents, select The Four Million, then “The Cop and the Anthem”)
“Marigolds” by Eugenia Collier
Lizabeth recalls a time when she was fourteen, in Maryland, during the Depression. A woman in her neighborhood, Miss Lottie, lives in a dilapidated home, but has a colorful marigold garden. She’s an outcast, and the children make her a target of taunts.
This is the first story in the preview of Breeder and Other Stories.
“The Spinoza of Market Street” by 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.
Some of this story can be read in the preview of The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories.
“Royal Beatings” by Alice Munro
In the Depression-era, Rose lives with her father and stepmother in a poor area. Her stepmother relates the story of a local man who gets attacked. She also threatens Rose with a “royal beating.”
This is the first story in the preview of Alice Munro’s Best: Selected Stories. (25% into preview)
“Internal Monologue on a Corner in Havana” by 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” by 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” by 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” by 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” by 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” by 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” by 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.
This is a popular collection. There’s a short preview available.
“The Bucket Rider” by Franz Kafka
A freezing man goes to the local coal dealer to beg for a shovelful of coal.
“The Train from Rhodesia” by 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” by 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” by 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.
“Exchange Value” by 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” by 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” by 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” by 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.
“Life in the Iron Mills” by 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” by 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.
“What Do You Do With Your Old Coffee Grounds?” by 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” by 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” by 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.
“A Case for Kop” by Heinrich Böll
Lasnov hangs out at the train station and tries to trade with the soldiers. One day the stationmaster tells him a case has arrived for Kop, a local merchant. The news spreads quickly and there’s much speculation about the case’s contents.
“Daughter” by 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.
“A Piece of Steak” by Jack London
Tom King is an aging prize-fighter preparing for a bout. He doesn’t have a sparring partner or enough food to be at his best. Money is tight and the tradesmen won’t give him credit anymore. He needs the win bonus from his next fight for himself, his wife, and his kids.
“Sea Oak” by George Saunders
The narrator is a waiter/stripper at a restaurant for women. He lives in a subsidized apartment with his sister, Min; his cousin, Jade; and his aunt, Bernie. Min and Jade also have babies. They don’t have much and they live in a bad area. The narrator gets a panicked call from Min while he’s at work.
“A Home Near the Sea” by Kamala Das
Arumugham and his wife are homeless. He had a good job but lost it for drunkenness. They argue all the time. They meet up with a young man who talks about finding a good job.
“The Reunion” by Maya Angelou
The narrator, Philomena, is an African American jazz pianist. In 1958, at a Sunday matinee at the Blue Palm Café, she sees Beth, who’s seeing a black man. Philomena’s family used to work as servants for Beth’s family. They were paid very little. When the band leader introduces Philomena, they look at each other with recognition.
“After the Fair” by Dylan Thomas
A young woman, Annie, is looking for a place to sleep. She’s on a fair grounds after hours. She looks into tents and stalls. She finds a baby in a pile of straw. Leaving it behind, she knocks on a trailer door where the light is still on.