Short Stories About Poverty & Poor Families

short stories about povertystory about poverty short story about a poor family
Short Stories About Poverty

These short stories about poverty feature characters or families living in and coping with poverty. Sometimes they’re struggling to obtain the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter and are just trying to get by; other times these basic needs are being met, but they don’t have anything extra and are living below the minimum standard for their time and place. Some could take place in areas where society is undeveloped and people don’t have access to regular amenities. Often, we’re shown the struggle of living in such conditions and the toll it takes on people. See also:

Find a Story About Poverty

“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. (Summary & Analysis)

“The Lesson” is the first story in the Amazon preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story.

“The Rocket” by Ray Bradbury

Fiorello Bodoni wakes at night and goes outside to listen to the rockets flying to Mars, Saturn and Venus. He’s a junk dealer, but has managed to save enough money to send one family member on a rocket ride. An acquaintance tells him this is doomed to fail because the rest of the family will resent whoever goes. His children are excited about the possibility. (Summary)

“The Rocket” can be read in the sample of Bradbury Stories(25% in)

“Marigolds” by Eugenia W. 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. (Summary & Analysis)

This is the first story in the preview of Breeder and Other Stories

“The Whistle” by Eudora Welty

An older couple, Jason and Sara, are sharecroppers working for Mr. Perkins. They lie in bed at night, Jason sleeping and Sara staring into the dark. It’s cold every night, and as the fire goes down it gets worse. They’re tired and poor. Sara thinks about the spring and summer, but it’s hard even to imagine it now. When freezing temperatures threaten to destroy the crop, Mr. Perkins blows a whistle to warn the farmers. (Summary)

“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.

“The Second Hut” by Doris Lessing

Carruthers is a struggling farmer with a sick wife. Between all the work he has to oversee and caring for his wife, he has to hire an assistant. He can’t pay much, but there’s unemployment, so he finds an Afrikaner, Van Heerden, who accepts the position. (Summary)

“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 IndianThis 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. (Summary and Analysis)

Read “Rules of the Game”

“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.

Find a Story About Poverty, Cont’d

The Balek Scales by Heinrich Boll

The narrator tells the story of his grandfather, who lived in a village that was controlled by the Balek family. The people would bring their flax, mushrooms and herbs to Frau Balek, who would weigh everything on the only scale in the village, and pay them. (Summary)

“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.

“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. (Summary)

“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”)

“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)

“Man and Woman” by Erskine Caldwell

A dejected and exhausted man and woman are walking at dawn. When they see a farmhouse in the distance, Ruth believes they’ll be able to get something to eat there.

This is the fourth story in the preview of The Stories of Erskine Caldwell(29% into preview)

“Luís Soares” by Machado de Assis

Luis Soares sleeps twelve hours during the day and stays up at night. He lives on a fortune inherited from his father. He doesn’t read the paper, has avoided marriage, and is indifferent to religion and politics. He pays no attention to his finances, and one day finds he has spent all his money.

This story can be read in the preview of The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis(46% in)

“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.

“The Grocery Store” by Bernard Malamud

Sam and Ida Kaplan sit in the back of their grocery store with Rosen, a supplier. He reads through a list of products and prices. Sam is distracted. He’s been running the store nineteen years and they’re barely making enough to cover their expenses.

This story can be read in the preview of The Complete Stories(29% in)

“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.

Find a Story About Poverty, Cont’d

“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.

“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.

Find a Story About Poverty, Cont’d

“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.

“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.

Read “A Piece of Steak”

“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.

I’ll keep adding short stories about poverty as I find more.