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Poverty Tropes

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Maybe would tighter than I shoulda been — probably
A mannerism born of Christmas shopping at the Dollar Tree
Aesop Rock, "King Cone" (feat. Rob Sonic)

An index for tropes dealing with lower-class people living in squalor and/or struggling with hunger, debt, bankruptcy, unemployment, unstable employment and housing, homelessness, and addiction, typically in the lowest income quintile. Almost never portrayed positively in fiction.

Contrast with Rich People and Luxury Tropes. See also Class Relations Index for how lower class people interact with other social classes.


  • Bankruptcy Barrel: When the character is wearing a barrel strapped onto them to show that they are poor.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Some people are so poor that they can't even afford to buy a pair of shoes.
  • Basement-Dweller: A grown man still lives with his parents, because he's a chronically unemployed NEET (or works a crappy low-wage job), and thus can't even afford his own house or apartment.
  • Bath of Poverty: Bathing isn't a good experience due to being unable to afford proper plumbing and hot water.
  • Beggar with a Signboard: Hobos on the roadside or on a sidewalk hold up homemade signs requesting money, food, or other things.
  • Bindle Stick: A homeless person carries all their belongings tied up in a bundle at the end of a stick carried over their shoulder, especially in historical Period Piece settings.
  • Bribing the Homeless: Homeless people doing (sometimes crazy) things for other people during their desperate pursuit of quick money.
  • Broke Episode: One episode has the characters run out of money and have to find a creative way to make ends meet.
  • Cardboard Box Home: Homeless people live in large cardboard boxes under a highway overpass or in an alley.
  • Choosy Beggar: They may be in need of a handout of food or goods, but Everyone Has Standards, and in this case, the beggar turns down what is offered.
  • Closet Sublet: When a person is renting a tiny, cramped space as a living area that is smaller than a bedroom and which is not built as a living space, such as an under-stairs storage area.
  • Crazy Homeless People: Homeless people are often depicted as being mentally ill, as mental disorders can be both a cause and effect of homelessness. Bonus points if their mental state is being affected by a drug addiction or alcoholism.
  • Credit Card Destruction: Someone who maxes out their credit card or who doesn’t pay the bill has it cut up by a shopkeeper.
  • Cutting Corners: Making do with cheap substitutes and inferior goods to save money.
  • Developing Nations Lack Cities: Poor countries are stereotyped as being completely rural and lacking any large urbanized cities.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Prostitutes and strippers tend to be at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, thus making them easy victims of murder by their angry pimps, or preyed upon by serial killers or rapists.
  • Disposable Vagrant: Most people don't really notice or care about what happens to homeless people, which makes them very easy targets for kidnappers, rapists and murderers.
  • Dog Food Diet: Someone eats pet food, because people food is too expensive.
  • Dublin Skanger: A stock character in Irish media who's usually working class, hard-drinking and extremely violent.
  • Dying Town: Small towns with severe economic hardships, so most of the stores are boarded up and there's few jobs.
  • Empty Fridge, Empty Life: Poverty is depicted by showing a fridge with empty or near-empty shelves.
  • Even Beggars Won't Choose It: A handout of food, clothing or goods is of such terrible quality, that even the most hard-up people have no use for it.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: A person desperate for money will take on a job that they, and society, sees as unglamorous and/or undignified.
  • Financial Test of Friendship: A much-poorer person helps their once-wealthy friend in a time of need, proving that their friendship is genuine.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: Having little money means having little experience in wealth management, so poor characters who acquire riches often just lose it again.
  • Forgot to Pay the Bill: Electricity or gas can be cut off if someone just doesn't have enough money to pay for their bills.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Realistically, a character does not earn an income to justify such a large, fancy urban apartment.
  • Gangbangers: These street-level gang members and drug dealers are often seen in low-income urban areas.
  • Half-Witted Hillbilly: Characters from the countryside are depicted as stupid hicks.
  • Hobos: Stereotypical homeless people who are always on the move from town to town, often in a Period Piece set in the 1920s-1940s, and often by riding the rails.
  • Hobo Gloves: Dirty, tattered, often fingerless gloves associated with severe poverty and living on the street in inclement weather.
  • Homeless Hero: The protagonist lives a nomadic lifestyle for some reason.
  • Homeless Pigeon Person: Hobos with pet pigeons or who allow pigeons to roost on them.
  • Horrible Housing: A character lives in a crappy, ramshackle house to emphasize their impoverished, precarious living situation.
  • Impoverished Patrician: A noble or aristocrat who has lost their wealth, but still retains their posh education and manners.
  • Informed Poverty: A character is allegedly poor, but are apparently richer than they've claimed to be.
  • Inner City School: Educational facilities tend to be abysmal in poor, inner-city urban neighborhoods.
  • Jobless Parent Drama: A family faces financial difficulties because one or both parents are now unemployed.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: A thief who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, like the medieval folk hero.
  • Kill the Poor: The poor are killed off in an attempt to eliminate the impacts of poverty from a community, such as begging and sleeping on the street.
  • King of the Homeless: The self-appointed or informally elected leader of a homeless community or hobo encampment.
  • Kitchen Sink Drama: Stories about poor working-class people living in grimy, inexpensive apartments, eating cheap food and struggling with alcoholism; typically set Oop North in Britain.
  • Land Poor: A person owns a large house or vast estate, but much of their money is invested in the upkeep of said property, so they have little cash to live on.
  • Lint Value: Offering far too little money to buy something, often because it's all they have.
  • Lives in a Van: They live in a vehicle because they can't afford a house or apartment.
  • Lower-Class Lout: A hard-drinking, loud-mouthed, belligerent jerkass who is poor. May be a villain in the story.
  • Magical Homeless Person: an impoverished person with magical abilities who sleeps on the street in an alley.
  • Mistaken For Destitute: Someone is mistaken for being homeless and/or impoverished.
  • Mock Millionaire: A lower-class or middle-class person who pretends to be upper-class by imitating a rich person's appearance, clothing and mannerisms.
  • Ms. Red Ink: A character (almost always female) puts the family in debt with extravagant, wasteful purchases, often on credit.
  • Mundane Luxury: A common, widely available item, like soap or apples will be considered an extravagant treat by anyone who can't afford to buy it on a regular basis.
  • NEET: Someone who is Not in Employment, Education, or Training. In other words, an adult who is not currently a college student and is also unemployed.
  • Neglected Rez: Indian reservations in North America depicted as poor and suffering from a whole host of social issues.
  • No Budget: A creative project obviously didn't get much funding or resources, as can be seen from it's poor production values and errors.
  • No Poverty: A society where poverty and squalor are nonexistent, either because the society is a wonderful utopia, or because it's a totalitarian dystopia where your physical needs are met but you are a prisoner in a surveillance state.
  • Pauper Patches: A character's tattered, grimy and hand patched-up and repaired clothes indicates poverty.
  • Penny Among Diamonds: A less-well-off character finds themselves in an environment full of wealthy people.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Despite having little money, these people always have just enough supplies and resources to survive.
  • Pottery Barn Poor: Despite barely scraping by, a character's home is unrealistically furnished with items that they could not afford without sacrificing food purchases or skipping out on paying rent.
  • Poverty Food: Because food that's both healthy and tasty is out of their budget, these characters eat inexpensive, low-quality food.
  • Poverty for Comedy: Being poor is Played for Laughs.
  • Poverty Porn: Close-up depictions of people living in extreme poverty done for gratuitous reasons.
  • Prince and Pauper: Two identical strangers, one upper-class and the other one lower-class, decide to switch lives and disguise themselves as each other.
  • Rags to Riches: A poor person becomes wealthy.
  • Rags to Royalty: A poor commoner becomes a member of the nobility.
  • Rich Language, Poor Language: Rich and poor characters are distinguished by their accents and/or dialects.
  • Rich Sibling, Poor Sibling: One sibling is poor, the other is rich.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Someone has two love interests of vastly different economic backgrounds.
  • Riches to Rags: A wealthy person becomes poor.
  • Princess in Rags: Her Highness is now living in less than lowered circumstances and has to learn how commoners live.
  • Secretly Wealthy: A rich person pretends to be poorer than they actually are.
  • Shopping Cart of Homelessness: Like Bindle Stick, but with a shopping cart to hold their clothes and possessions.
  • Single Mom Stripper: A woman with no one to help turns to stripping or prostitution to put bread on the table for her kids.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: The eternal struggle between the rich and the poor.
  • Slumming It: A wealthy person pretends to be poor because they're curious about what life is like for the less fortunate.
  • Soup of Poverty: Cheap, low-quality soup as a Poverty Food, served at homeless shelters, sold in cans or homemade.
  • Starving Artist: An artist who doesn't make any money off their works, but who continues to paint or sculpt due to their love of the arts.
  • Starving Student: A university student who's poor and struggling to finance their education.
  • Street Musician: A destitute person tries to get money from people by playing a musical instrument on the streets.
  • Street Urchin: Homeless orphans and street children are dressed in rags.
  • Streetwalker: Prostitutes who pick up men on the roadside, which is the most dangerous form of sex work. They probably wouldn't be selling sex for money if they had a better source of income.
  • Struggling Single Mother: She's having a hard time raising her kid(s) with no father to help or pitch in cash and little money to spare.
  • Sucky School: Poorly-funded schools are staffed by teachers who are jaded or mean-spirited, run by an indifferent or sadistic principal, lack up-to-date technology, and use outdated textbooks.
  • Too Desperate to Be Picky: As the saying goes, beggars can't be choosers.
  • The Tramp: A romanticized vagrant who is usually homeless and lives hand-to-mouth, but is generally honorable and is often charismatic and has a way with words.
  • Trashy Trailer Home: Trailers and mobile home parks are portrayed as the most horrible, dirty places to live, seething with poverty, addiction and violence.
  • Unconfessed Unemployment: Someone won't admit to their own friends and family that they've lost their job.
  • Urban Hellscape: The underbelly of any large city is crawling with vice.
  • Wallet Moths: Moths fly out of wallets or pockets to indicate the character has no money.
  • War Refugees: Civilians who have been rendered homeless by the chaos and destruction of war, fleeing for their lives by staying in refugee camps or migrating to safer countries.
  • Wisdom from the Gutter: A homeless person has nothing left but their wisdom, which they'll gladly share with you.
  • Work Off the Debt: If you can't pay, you'll have to work for the business until you've earned the money required to pay.
  • Working-Class Hero: The protagonist is a member of the lower classes of society.
  • Working-Class People Are Morons: Poor people are depicted as being dumb and ignorant because of their lack of education.
  • Working-Class Werewolves: Werewolves are often depicted as being poor, at least compared to vampires.
  • Wretched Hive: Urban ghettos, slums, shantytowns and the like are not pleasant places to live in, because of the rampant poverty and crime.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks: A part of the city is known to be home to lots of poor people and criminals.