One of the main themes of this story that cannot be ignored is that of poverty. The poverty in which the McCourt family lives is shown to be brutal, unyielding and pervasive. It is clear that in Limerick, poverty is accepted and part of everyday living. Note the way that the dole system that is set up is never shown to be enough to give them sufficient food and shelter. The systems that exist seem to do nothing to combat the root causes of poverty, and are often extremely humiliating, such as when Angela goes for assistance at the Dispensary and is insulted and made fun of by those in charge, saying that her husband has an "English tart":
Well, we know why, don't we? We know what the men of Ireland are up to in England. We know there's the occasional Limerickman seen trotting around with a Piccadilly tart, don't we?
Again and again, reference is made to the small amount of money that the dole gives the McCourts, and at the start, when they receive nineteen shillings a week for going on the dole, Angela poignantly and bitterly remarks that it is "just enough for all of us to starve on."
However, equal focus is also given to the terrible living conditions that the McCourts are forced to endure. In their final house before they are evicted, the lavatory for eleven families is right outside their door and the rain makes the downstairs room uninhabitable for half of the year and the family retire upstairs to the bedroom. It is clear that the deaths of the twins are largely a result of living conditions and their hunger.
We see the McCourt family in a downward spiral of poverty, which worsens as Malachy goes to England supposedly to get work but only spends the money he earns on his alcoholism. The nadir of this descending spiral of poverty occurs when Frankie sees his mother begging at the priest's house for food for her family, sacrificing any decency and social standing in order to gain something that she can use to feed her children. Throughout it all, Angela shows considerable determination and grit in her willingness to humiliate herself and receive humiliation in order to look after her family.