29 Powerful Books About Poverty and Its Impact

Books about Poverty and its impact

When we created the 2023 reading challenge, we knew we wanted to approach it with an opportunity to give back to the community. When we settled on books about poverty and its impact as a prompt, we had the perfect partner in mind.

This year we are pleased to be partnering with Tree House Books, a literacy organization in Philadelphia. The mission of Tree House Books is to grow and sustain a community of readers, writers, and thinkers in North Philadelphia. Through multi-programs such as a traveling bookmobile, a neighborhood book delivery program, and on-site literacy services this organization gets books into the hands of children who need them the most.

Since the prompt is also part of the 2023 Summer Reading Challenge, which spans May-August, we will be hosting multiple in-person and virtual events and giving opportunities to raise funds and collect books for this incredible organization all summer long.

We hope that the books about poverty on this list will inspire a feeling of gratitude and giving. Tree House Books Executive Director, Michael Brix, joins us to recommend the most powerful books about poverty and its impact. You can also donate through this link!

*This books about poverty post contains affiliate links. Purchases made through links result in a small commission to us at no cost to you.

Copy of Copy of Copy of Untitled Design

Meet Michael Brix, Executive Director of Tree House Books

Michael Brix is the Executive Director of Tree House Books. He is a book-lover, educator, art-maker, and serious home chef. His favorite author is James Baldwin and he encourages seeking out Black authors and other authors of color to expand your own understanding. He believes in the power of stories to change the world. He has worked in the nonprofit sector in Philadelphia for over 25 years, working with a social justice organization and starting a youth theatre company before joining Tree House Books in 2019.

Michael loves to read, loves stories, movies, and loves to cook. He hates to do the dishes and balks at the laundry. He loves watching Philly teams excel in sports, so this has been a great year for him! He lives in Germantown with his partner and 2 teenagers. Michael also likes talking about himself in the third person and finds bios to be an opportunity to talk about him the way he imagines others speak of him when his back is turned. He also likes dark chocolate.

Michael’s Picks for Books about Poverty and Its Impact

going to meet the man

Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

I love the short story genre and I needed to add one here. Baldwin is a master storyteller and this is one of his best. Read this story for Baldwin’s unique way of finding humanity, and the brokenness in every person. Also, read it for the way Baldwin paints with words and language. An amazing story.

love radio

Love Radio by Ebony LaDelle

This newly released young adult novel is not about poverty, per se, but I just read it and loved it. In Love Radio, the two main characters find themselves falling in love and navigating that along with growing up, applying for college, and part-time jobs. A sweet story, well told, that is realistic but doesn’t center Black trauma. 

disgruntled

Disgruntled by Asali Solomon

Disgruntled is one of the best novels I’ve read in the past 5 years. Full disclosure, Solomon was featured in a Tree House Books event in 2020, so we love her! I’ve added Disgruntled to this list because Solomon deals with the very real barriers that keep people in poverty. It’s also told with grace, humor and humanity. (You can read my interview with Solomon here.

all boys arent blue

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

A memoir that follows the author growing up in a small town in New Jersey and discovering how their queerness and Blackness impacts the world around them. In many ways, this memoir is a love letter to Johnson’s grandmother and is a beautiful tribute to her. Come for the funny growing-up stories, and stay for the impact of the family drama.

Caste

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Journalist Wilkerson makes the case for a social stratification existing here in the United States. In this book, she details the difficulty of moving from one social level to another, exposing the myth of the American Dream of upward mobility. 

Myth of the welfare queen

Myth of the Welfare Queen by David Zucchino

If you remember the politics of the mid-eighties, there was a Regan-inspired movement to demonize those on public assistance. Welfare Queens were taking from the State, driving expensive cars, and owning big TVs.

Zucchino took to the streets to find out if this was true. I include it here because we are seeing a rise in this type of shaming happening as our politics continue to fracture. 

Fiction Books About Poverty

Violeta

Violeta by Isabel Allende

How have I never read an Isabel Allende book before? SHOCKING! This is the story of Violeta, a woman whose life was bookended by two pandemics.

An ordinary citizen of South America, her life story swept me away. She goes from wealth to destitution during the Great Depression, experiences numerous marriages, and navigates the dramas of her children and grandchildren.

Ultimately, she lives a life rich in passion, loss, and joy. When the story ended, I felt like I was parting with a dear friend.

Find this book in Books About Poverty / Books by Female BIPOC Authors / Books with Colors in the Title

push

Push by Sapphire 

Push is a look at life in the poverty-stricken streets of Harlem in the eighties. The main character is an illiterate 16-year-old pregnant with her second child by her father.

The commentary on a life of poverty and the struggles to get out of her situation are horrific but inspiring. It is incredibly difficult, but such a worthwhile, thought-provoking book.

the rent collector

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright

Years after I read this book about poverty, I still think about it. Ki Lim and Sang Ly live at the largest dump in Cambodia with their child, Nisay. Every day they scavenge recyclable goods from the trash to raise money to pay the rent.

But when Sang Ly learns a secret about the rent collector, she sets off on a journey to save her son. The searing depictions of poverty are overlaid with a poignant tale of a mother’s love to create a story that will stick with you for years to come.

A FINE BALANCE

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

November 2001 Oprah Book Club Pick

A Fine Balance is an epic and heartbreaking family saga of life in India. It’s a story of love and friendship in an unnamed city in 1975.

Lovers come together and are ripped apart in this memorable book about poverty and its impact. I read this book years before it was an Oprah Book Club pick but it is not a book that is easy to forget. It is heart-wrenching in every way and a literary feat. If you are looking for books that will emotionally wreck you, this one is not to be missed.

Historical Fiction Books About Poverty

Where the Crawdads sing

Where the Crawdads Sing Deluxe Edition by Dehlia Owens

September 2018 Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick

I will admit when I saw the description of this coming-of-age book, I was not sold.  A trusted individual, who has never steered me wrong in the past, gave me an advanced copy so, I took the leap.  And wow, am I glad I did.  I read this book and then recommended it to everyone I knew.  It is one of the best mystery novels I have ever read.

This 70s book has that spark, that special something, that makes it extra. The book begins when a body is found in a North Carolina marsh and is identified as Chase Andrews. The story moves between the past and the present to tell the story of Kya Clark, The Marsh Girl, who is a suspect in the murder.

We have an entire post dedicated to this book and how to host a book club around it which makes it a perfect book for book clubs! If you love this book, check out our list of 13 books like Where the Crawdads Sing.

the giver of stars

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

November 2019 Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick

I’m not usually a Jojo Moyes reader, but this story about a mobile library was one that caught my eye. I’m so glad I ended up reading it because it was wonderful!

I had no idea that women used to travel by horseback to deliver books in the Appalachian mountains. These librarians were utterly badass as they thumbed their noses at societal norms for the betterment of their community.

Each woman’s story was woven together in a tapestry of love, friendship, and sisterhood. I couldn’t put down this book about books!

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris

Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris

When a mother is faced with an impossible choice, she does the only thing that she can think of and puts up a sign “2 Children for Sale”.  When Ellis, a struggling reporter, sees the sign, he takes a picture. 

Although he never meant for anyone to publish the photo, it becomes news and unleashes events that Ellis could never have anticipated.  Lillian, an aspiring reporter who works at the paper, feels guilty about her role in the release of the photograph.  Together, Ellis and Lillian work together to try and put a family back together. This book about poverty and motherhood will probably lead you to tears!

Tidelands

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is back with a new non-royal series, this one is actually a book about poverty in Renaissance England. Tidelands is set in 1648 in the midst of the English civil war. The king has been overthrown and the country is in turmoil, but in the marshlands of the South, the villagers are worried about survival.

Alinor is a healer whose services are both respected and feared. She carefully toes the line between a wise woman and a witch as she struggles to feed her family. One fateful night she decides to help a catholic priest to safety without realizing the danger this secret would bring to her family. Philippa Gregory books are epic and this one is a perfect book for fall.

Non-Fiction Book About Poverty

1619

The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones

I read the 1619 project during the banned book month of our 2022 reading challenge. Created at first for The New York Times Magazine, this collection of essays was expanded upon for the book.

I enjoyed listing to this full cast audiobook featuring many of the writers themselves doing the reading! With essays on sugar, capitalism, music, healthcare, and even traffic, I learned so much about how much of American society is built around racist ideals.

The Color of Law and more books by Jewish writers

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

All I can say is wow.  This book is absolutely illuminating.  I cannot believe the laws in this country that were created to systematically segregate  America.  More than just redlining, banks, and the government created a system in which there were completely different sets of rules depending on the color of your skin. 

I did not know anything about these laws prior to reading the book and it left me flabbergasted. This is a must-read, non-fiction book about poverty and the history of our country. I think it should actually be required reading.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson’s memoir about his early career is truly eye-opening. I had no idea about the scope of injustice towards black men in the criminal justice system. The stories of the inmates on death row who were falsely accused broke my heart.

I can’t believe our country doesn’t have more reform in this area. Stevenson’s career is truly incredible and one that should be commended. I’m very interested in seeing the movie now. If you are looking for a nonfiction that reads like a novel, this is the perfect pick. It is a perfect pick from nonfiction books for beginners.

the immortal life of henrietta lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I read this book a few years ago and I was absolutely stunned.  With each page, I kept thinking to myself “this can’t be true” and yet, somehow, it was.  

In the 1950s an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks unknowingly had her cells taken.  These cells, known as HeLa,  were the first human cells to survive outside the human body and could reproduce indefinitely.  HeLa cells became the basis for medical breakthroughs from the creation of the Polio vaccine to cancer and Aids research.

However, Henrietta Lacks’s family was never compensated for her contribution to science and could not afford to pay medical bills despite the cells making billions for companies. if you have not read this non-fiction book about poverty and science, it should be at the top of your list.

Memoirs about Poverty

educated

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

This coming-of-age book had me thinking about it for DAYS. I mean truly, DAYS. This book about poverty shows the impact how a lack of education can impact generations.

Tara’s journey was inspiring, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking all in one. This nonfiction book about cults had great insight into more extremist religions and survivalists.

I don’t usually read memoirs and I heard great things about this book.  I loved it so much- it made my list of favorites for the year last year.  It is such an amazing story that reads like a novel rather than non-fiction.

Finding me by Viola Davis

Finding Me by Viola Davis

April 2022 Oprah’s Book Club Pick

Viola Davis’s life story had me entranced as I learned what she needed to overcome during her childhood, college, and her early career to become the powerhouse she is today.

Her thoughts on life in Hollywood were enlightening. Her deep love for her family and her roots shone through. And her story made it very clear that she takes nothing for granted.

Viola worked damn hard to be successful and she deserves every accolade she’s received and more. Her narration even earned her an Audie Awards 2023 nomination.

maid

Maid by Stephanie Land

Stephanie’s story about trying to build a better life for her child is so compelling and thought-provoking. Detailing how she worked as a housemaid to make ends meet, she also detailed the struggles to afford basic needs.

This book about poverty and a mother’s love was eye-opening and so compelling. It reminded me of a more modern Nickel and Dimed.

Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

I read this book about poverty in college and I still think of it today. For one year, Barbara set out to live off minimum wage at the lowest-paying jobs in America.

Over the course of the year, she is a hotel maid, a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aid, and a Wal-Mart associate. Her stories of the conditions she lives in and what people need to do to get by on the poverty line fundamentally changed the course of many people’s thinking over the years.

It shows how hard people are working for minimum wage and how little those salaries get you. This is one of those books that make you think about what is wrong with what we value in this country.

My Side of the River

My Side of the River: A Memoir by Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez

This gripping memoir of Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez and her experience living in the U.S. when her parents were forced back to Mexico was a one-siting read for me. Born in America to illegal immigrants, she was just 15 years old when her parents couldn’t get their visitor’s visas renewed, leaving Elizabeth responsible for her young brother in America.

Soon her brother is reunited with her parents while Elizabeth is left to couch surf as she tries to graduate High School in the hopes of making it to an Ivy League college and better the lives of her entire family in the process.

Why We Like it Elizabeth’s candid, vulnerability shines a light on the hardships immigrant families face in both facing prejudice and gaining access to the American dream. Her story is a true testament to grit and survival in the face of adversity.

the glass castle

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls

This is an amazing recount of Jeanette Walls’s upbringing and childhood.  She is a successful journalist and writer living in New York City. 

Her parents also live in New York; however, they choose to be homeless. Jeanette Wells’s upbringing was unconventional and her parents did not offer her a structured childhood. This is a fantastic pick from books about mothers and as non-fiction books go, this one reads like fiction. This pick from thought-provoking books is so readable that I would even recommend it to young teens.

YA/ Middle Grade

on the come up

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas has done it again with this book.  Unlike the book, The Hate U Give when I completely understood Starr and her motivations, Bri was different for me. 

In this case, I questioned her actions and related more to her mother than I did to her.  I wanted to reach through the book and talk some sense into her.  It felt like I was sitting by while someone made bad decisions and there was nothing I could do about it.  This book is a must-read book for book clubs.

Kelly Yang 1

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

This recently banned book tells the story of Mia and her family who are immigrants from China. Mia’s struggles to be successful in America are met with the divide between classes in her school, the racism she faces, and her family’s quest to make ends meet.

Why We Love This Book: I loved learning from Mia and watching her problem-solve to help her family as they took over caring for the Calivista Motel. If you are looking for realistic fiction middle grade books that skew a little younger, check out this realistic fiction book.
Appropriate for ages 9-11
Find this book in
Coming-of-Age Books / Books for 10-year-olds / Audiobooks for Kids / Hotel Novels / Books about Poverty and It’s Impact

The war that saved my life

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I read this realistic fiction book in a few hours and immediately ordered the sequel The War I Finally Won.  Ada is a 10-year-old girl who lives in a one-room world gazing at the world from one window.  She was born with a club foot and teaches herself to walk in secret.  When the children who lived in London were evacuated to go to the country at the start of WW2, Ada escapes her abusive mother and leaves London with her little brother.

There is so much depth to this book.  It is a Newbury Honor book and the Winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for middle grade. This middle grade historical fiction is a story of love and survival in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Do not be fooled by this middle grade fiction. It is emotionally crafted and brilliantly written and is my favorite on the list of WWII books for kids.

crenshaw

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

If you are a Middle-Grade book lover, then this is one of the books about poverty that you NEED to read. Katherine Applegate tells a heartwarming story about Jackson and his family.

They don’t have the funds to pay the rent and now they are living out of their minivan. Triggered by his family’s struggles, Jackson summons Crenshaw, an imaginary friend who happens to be a cat. Crenshaw helps Jackson get to the truth of what is going on with his family in this touching book.

Dystopian Fiction Books About Poverty

The Light Pirate (GMA Book List) and other December 2022 Celebrity book Club spoilers

The Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton

December 2022 GMA Book Club Pick

Set in the not-so-distant future, this dystopian novel describes a world where climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet.

Wanda is born during her namesake hurricane, to a mother who dies on the same night. As Wanda grows, she has to deal with the worsening landscape of a world dying around her. As she tries to survive, she also navigates relationships with loved ones and the surrounding community.

Why I Like it: I’ve never read a dystopian novel that hit so close to home. With the climate crisis at a breaking point, this felt like reading about an inevitable future.

Find this book in Thought-Provoking Books / Best Books for Book Clubs / Dystopian Novels

hunger games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is the first book in the Hunger Games series and it is epic! In the aftermath of what was once North America, there are 12 Districts surrounding the capital.

Each year, each district sends one boy and one girl to fight to the death in a competition called “The Hunger Games”. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as a tribute to save her younger sister from the certain death of the games. This book has everything but at its heart, it is a perfect pick for books about poverty and its impact.

If you love the Hunger Games, check out these 24 books just like it!

Did you find any books about poverty and its impact that you would like to read?

This post fulfills a prompt for the 2023 reading challenge! It’s not too late to join!

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