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What Dave Ramsey gets wrong about poverty
Financial advisor Dave Ramsey is also an evangelical Christian.
November 30th, 2013
09:59 AM ET

What Dave Ramsey gets wrong about poverty

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, special to CNN 

(CNN)– Dave Ramsey is rich. And he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich, too.

Host of a nationally syndicated radio program and author of multiple best-selling books, Ramsey targets evangelical Christians with what he calls a “biblical” approach to financial planning, one that focuses primarily on the elimination of consumer debt. His for-profit Financial Peace University is billed as “a biblically based curriculum that teaches people how to handle money God's ways."

Much of what Ramsey teaches is sound, helpful advice, particularly for middle-class Americans struggling with mounting credit card bills. I have celebrated with friends as they’ve marked their first day of debt-free living, thanks in part to Dave Ramsey’s teachings and all those white envelopes of cash he urges his students to use instead of credit cards.

But while Ramsey may be a fine source of information on how to eliminate debt, his views on poverty are neither informed nor biblical.

Take, for example, a recent article by Tim Corley posted to Ramsey’s website. Entitled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day,” the article presents some dubious statistics comparing the habits of the rich with the habits of the poor, including:

“70% of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day.”

“76% of wealthy exercise aerobically four days a week. 23% of poor do this.”

“63% of wealthy listen to audio books during commute to work vs. 5% of poor people.”

One need not be a student of logic to observe that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causation here by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.

For example, a poor person might not exercise four days a week because, unlike a rich person, she cannot afford a gym membership. Or perhaps she has to work two jobs to earn a living wage, which leaves her little time and energy for jogging around the park.

A poor family may eat more junk food, not because they are lazy and undisciplined, but because they live in an economically disadvantaged, urban setting where health food stores are not as available: a so-called “food desert.”

Critics were swift to point out these discrepancies and among the critics were some of Ramsey’s fellow evangelical Christians who also noted that, though the book of Proverbs certainly heralds success as a common return on faithful labor, nowhere does the Bible guarantee that good habits lead to wealth.

The writer of Ecclesiastes observed that "under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all."

And far from having contempt for the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the excesses of the rich. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he said, “for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24).

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," Jesus famously said, "than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

It’s hard for the wealthy to flourish in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated because the economy of that kingdom runs so contrary to the economies of the world. It rewards the peacemakers over the powerful, the humble over the proud, the kind over the cruel, and those who hunger to do the right thing over those whose wealth has convinced them they already are.

Ramsey responded to the pushback with an addendum to the original post calling his critics “ignorant” and “immature” and instructing them to “grow up.”

“This list simply says your choices cause results,” he said, again committing the false cause fallacy. “You reap what you sow.”

The list, he said, applies only to people living in “first world” countries, where Ramsey believes economic injustices are essentially nonexistent. While the poor in developing countries are so as a result of external circumstances beyond their control, the poor in the United States have no one to blame but themselves.

“If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU,” Ramsey says. “You can make better choices and have better results.”

America, he argues, has prospered as a direct result of its “understanding and application of biblical truths” which have led to “life-changing industry, inventions and a standard of living never known before on this planet.”

“There is a direct correlation,” he concludes, “between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth.”

For Christians, Ramsey’s perceived “direct correlation” between faith and wealth should be more troubling than his other confused correlations, for it flirts with what Christians refer to as the prosperity gospel, the teaching that God rewards faithfulness with wealth.

Ramsey’s particular brand of prosperity gospel elevates the American dream as God’s reward for America’s faithfulness, the spoils of which are readily available to anyone who works hard enough to receive them.

But such a view glosses over the reality that America was not, in fact, founded upon purely Christian principles (unless one counts slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender inequity, and Jim Crow as Christian principles), so we should be careful of assuming our relative wealth reflects God’s favor. (The Roman Empire was wealthy, too, after all.)

It also glosses over the reality that economic injustice is not, in fact, limited to the developing world but plagues our own country as well.

When medical bills are the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the United States, there are systemic injustices at work.

When people working 40-hour weeks at minimum wage jobs still can’t earn enough to support their families, there are systemic injustices at work.

When approximately 1% of Americans hold 40% of the nation’s wealth, there are systemic injustices at work.

When the black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the white unemployment rate for the past 50 years, there are systemic injustices at work.

And throughout Scripture, people of faith are called not simply to donate to charity, but to address such systemic injustices in substantive ways.

The 17-year-old girl who lives in a depressed neighborhood zoned for a failing school system who probably won’t graduate because her grades are suffering because she has to work part-time to help support her family needs more than a few audio books to turn things around.

People are poor for a lot of reasons, and choice is certainly a factor, but categorically blaming poverty on lack of faith or lack of initiative is not only uninformed, it’s unbiblical.

God does not divide the world into the deserving rich and the undeserving poor. In fact, the brother of Jesus wrote that God has “chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5).

God does not bless people with money; God blesses people with the good and perfect gift of God’s presence, which is available to rich and poor alike.

And that’s good news.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of "Evolving in Monkey Town" and "A Year of Biblical Womanhood." She blogs at rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to Rachel Held Evans.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Business • Christianity • Ethics • evangelicals • Faith • Leaders • Money & Faith • Opinion

soundoff (2,299 Responses)
  1. Lynn

    And just how much does the girl writing this editorial write? I have a feeling she ain't below the poverty line either, so I think I'll stick to a real experts advice thank you anyways!!

    November 30, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
  2. Sophie Meyer

    I think the pope offered better fiscal advice – based loosely on christian principles – dave ramsey wouldn't be my choice on either subject.

    November 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  3. MI Snow

    Here's another stat for the list:
    – more then 56% of wealthy people drive a Mercedes or BMW but less than 5% if poor people do.

    Duh!

    November 30, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
  4. Joe

    I like most of what Ramsey says, though I decent objectionably to his political stance in the general sense. And I typically affirm CNN, especially over the counter options. That said, this seems to be a case of using statistics and missing the point of the argument. I'll admit I haven't read the source article either. However, I know Ramsey has a more recent talking point that he has been working on, about doing what rich people do. His point being, that if we want to be a millionaire, we should model our lives after what millionaires do. I don't know that he ever proclaims it as easy, I can assure you that it isn't, but as to his rebuttal, he tends to lash out like anyone with strong political opinions and makes likes to stubbornly stick to his guns.

    November 30, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  5. Robin Jones

    Some credit is due Dave Ramsey for the truth of "the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is you". On the other hand, “There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth.” is nonsense, as is the implicit whining of Rachel Held Evans that some "system" is to blame for one's poor economic status.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      You are naïve.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
  6. Trey

    Maybe if we teach a man/woman to fish instead of giving them one.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • doobzz

      Hallmark?

      November 30, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
      • Allie

        What difference does it make, it's true

        November 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
        • doobzz

          American Greetings?

          November 30, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
    • Sara

      That term is more cliche than truth. It costs money to fish and you need to find a good teacher. Not all fish are big enough to feed a family and there may not even be place near to even fish. Cliches are easier than facing reality, the Mary Poppins of society.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      It doesn't help to just teach someone to fish if they can't afford a pole to fish for themselves afterwards.

      December 1, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  7. Ungodly Discipline

    The GOP / Evangelicals love nothing more than keeping the poor poor and getting richer themselves by lying, cheating and stealing. This man is just another GOP snake oil salesman laughing all the way to the bank.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
    • David

      Jealous huh?

      November 30, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
      • Ungodly Discipline

        Yes I am jealous. I sincerely wish I could be a douche bag too.

        November 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
        • Donna

          You don't have to wish. You're proving it with every post you make.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
        • Ungodly Discipline

          You are incorrect Donna / David. Just another GOP liar.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
        • David

          Chuckle chuckle. No we are two separate people.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
        • Ungodly Discipline

          Well ok, at least you don't argue that you are a GOP / Evangelical liar.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
      • Ungodly Discipline

        Donna, did you change your name to David?

        November 30, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Link

      Your statement has no basis in reality. These evangelicals you love to bash are doing more to get people out of poverty than any other single group on the planet. Simply take a look at giving statistics (to charity); you'll see what I mean. Where do you get this stuff?

      November 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
      • Leslie

        If you remove giving to churches (and remember many of them just enrich themselves) then evangelicals and republicans give far less to charity than democrats and as percentage of income poor give far more to help others than rich.

        November 30, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
        • Link

          Incorrect. Giving to a church is not included in the stats I'm citing. I'm talking about money spent outside the church to help the poor.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
  8. Stephen

    WE have reached a point in society where incentives to be below a certain wage level outwiegh the benefits to working hard and earning a higher wage. I was able to find a job at 16 with no skills and almost no experience paying higher than minimum wage. It's almost laughable that we have created a state where people are paid to live in "poverty". We see this continued shift to dependency in the government take over of health care (which is a massive failure). America used to reward those that were willing to work the hardest. We have lost our way...

    November 30, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • Molly

      You are very correct. The Government pretty much pays people to stay poor. There is no incentive to break out of the cycle.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
    • MoveForward

      Let me guess, you're white and were not born into poverty?

      November 30, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
      • Stephen

        Two very big assumptions. I'll say that I've spent much of my life surrounded by those in pverty and those that chose to lift themselves up had opportunity. Every person can achieve and become what they set their minds to. Enabling people to believe they are victims is a winless battle that results in race wars and victimization. We as a country should choose to truly be color blind as MLK asked us to be and stop assuming our initial position in life determines our ultimate position.

        November 30, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
        • Sara

          Recognizing the many influences that help and hinder you in reaching goals is not defeatism. On the contrary, it is the education needed to make effective change.

          December 1, 2013 at 1:32 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Used to reward those that work hardest?
      Are you one of those that suggest therefore that poor are poor because they are lazy and don't work hard?

      December 1, 2013 at 9:47 am |
  9. Molly

    I think a good percentage of the US's population that are living below or at the poverty level is the result of poor choices in life. I was talking to some relatives at Thanksgiving and the subject of bankruptcy came up, almost every adult in the room had gone through at least one bankruptcy, some had two. There parents lived a mostly debt free life, but for some reason the kids and grand kids choose to live in debt. My mother and I couldn't figure out why or how they got into those situations, but it was only through their poor choices.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • MoveForward

      Nice generalizations.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
    • Relictus

      Medical expenses are the #1 cause of bankruptcy at 42%, followed by job loss at 22%. Good health is a gift, not a guarantee. This economy has seen a lot of people laid off over the past five year. Looking down on other people's misfortunes is ugly. Really ugly. It can happen to anyone.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
  10. Donna

    Rachel Evans is nothing more than an egomaniacal little blowhard who routinely bashes successful people in an attempt to get people to pay attention to her. And CNN is more than happy to give her the chance to do it.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      Jealous huh?

      November 30, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
      • Donna

        Not at all. I'm disgusted this person who is one of the most anti-Christian people out there is being held up by CNN as some kind of valid Christian voice. She's nothing more than a whining little crybaby who couldn't make a name for herself until she started bashing successful people. While that may be the way for the world to get attention, it's not Christ-like in any way. She's a disgrace to Christianity.

        November 30, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
        • Ungodly Discipline

          How can anyone be a disgrace to something as disgraceful as Christianity? Jealous.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
        • Relictus

          Your multiple "Ad Hominems" greatly weaken the validity of your opinion about Rachel. You are attacking her character without supplying cause or reason for your belief. If I had to form an opinion about you, my opinion about you would be that you do not have valid reasons to dislike Rachel.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • atomD21

      Wow Donna, did Rachel kill your puppy or something? Everything she said is completely in line with that the Bible actually teaches about monetary wealth and our responsibility to help the poor. It's the Evangelical Republican establishment that are categorically wrong in how they regard the rich and poor.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  11. san

    Ramsey laughs all the way to the bank at the ignorant, the gullible. He's just another Grifter feeding off those in need of help or a leg up.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  12. GT

    I initially started reading to see the author's point of view or have an objective opinion, or to at least see what they said but then I realized I'd fallen asleep because it was senseless rambling and I got bored. Why not research a topic that actually is relevant

    November 30, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
  13. Mel Evans

    I am extremely grateful that while this Dave Ramsey stuff is going on Pope Francis is also having a discussion about poverty, wealth and capitalism. I know which one sounds more Christ-like to me. It is the perfect contrast.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • atomD21

      Exactly. Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air in his speaking lately. His teachings should be a wake up call to all people, Catholic or not. We have got to demand a shift away from worship and pursuit of money above all else and realize that it is our duty as human beings, not just Christians, to care for those that are struggling.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
      • Mel Evans

        Perfectly said. 🙂

        November 30, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
  14. kp

    Wow. Where does one begin to comment on this? Rachel swipes with such a wide brush attacking Ramsey trying to link him to such far reaching examples as prosperity gospel to a theoretical woman working minimum wage. Her arguments are all emotion and barely any logic. Her article makes her sound like your typical huffington post liberal blogger with her own idolized, tailor made interpretation of christian doctrine.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • Trix

      Partisan much?

      November 30, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
    • David

      Ditto! Good grief, Ramsey wasn't saying an audio book MAKES one rich, or exercising MAKES one rich....(rolling my eyes). Typical CNN trash.

      November 30, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
      • atomD21

        Except that was completely what he was implying. He was indirectly saying through his comparisons those different choices led to prosperity for the rich, and if the poor would just exercise more, listen to audio books, and eat healthier (re the examples given in the article) they too would be rich. He is parroting the Republican party nonsense saying if they just try harder and do all the right stuff, everything will change. It's mindless demagoguery from people that have either forgotten what it was like to be poor, or never were. Dave Ramsey has some very sound and effective methods for helping struggling families decrease their debt load and help increase their financial security, but his increasing detachment from the people he set out to help is disappointing to say the least.

        November 30, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
        • Relictus

          There is some serious detachment among the religious conservatives in this country. Their disdain for their fellow man really comes through. I do not see Jesus liking these "Christian conservatives" very much.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  15. Link

    Such amateur logic. The author does not understand the Bible. And Dave Ramsey is a "prosperity gospel" preacher?! Ha! They are miles apart! This is the bottom line: is the American system perfect? No, there are problems. Is it "good enough" that a person who works hard and makes good choices has a chance to achieve wealth? Yes, witness tens-of-thousands who have done it. We need to fight to return to a true free-market economy that allows people to achieve financial freedom. And we should examine "the system" and continue to demand that it be brought into line with what is right. Finally, why shouldn't the Church help people who don't make good choices? In love, we should put our arms around folks who are struggling and teach them how to make better choices. A bit of coaching would help some folks learn to make better choices and get out of a vicious poverty cycle.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • bhp

      Your mindset is exactly what the author is pointing out. Your unbelievably biased perspective is that it is easy for someone in any country especially the us to mobilise upward. What a crock of junk. You really have no idea the hurdles in place for a child born into poverty to make the leaps you dismiss as "easy". Your privilege blinds and your vision is further shrouded by your self-righteousness. All of this is what the author is talking about.

      November 30, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
      • Link

        Are you talking to me? Show me the word "easy" anywhere in my post. It isn't there. What I did say is that with hard work and good choices, it's possible to get out of poverty and achieve wealth. Throw all the temper tantrums you want! In the end, you've got to deal with this fact: there are tens of thousands who have done it. So what's the difference? How come one guy can do it and another can't? How do first generation immigrants with NO inside connections pull this off? Dang, our system must not be so bad after all.

        November 30, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
        • Relictus

          @Link:

          You posted a fallacy, the "Argumentum Ad Populum". You then berated another poster for his logic and repeated your fallacy. It's as if you cannot see the formal error in your reasoning skills. Just a suggestion, but before you attack someone else's logic, you should be careful to have at least a basic command of the subject. You could be deliberately making logical fallacies, but that would be worse, in a way.

          November 30, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
        • Cedar Rapids

          How can 1 do it and another can't?
          Easy.....life and the fact we are all individuals.
          How about we step it up one stage further.......why aren't you a billionaire? Gates did it, jobs did it, Buffett did it.......why haven't you done it?

          December 1, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Phillip

      If we truly believed in a free market economy, the entire financial industry should have been allowed to collapse (instead of bailed out) and there would be no wealth to worry about.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
      • Link

        The "entire financial industry"? Wow. Are you sure? Some would bankrupt - those who made bad choices - but not all of them would collapse. And, the death of some businesses just leaves room for someone new to step up and fill that gap. It's a beautiful thing!

        November 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  16. steve

    I suggest the author practice Matthew 18 and talk to Dave directly. I'm sure he'd welcome the conversation.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
    • Trix

      I would posit that Dave should practice it as well. I would further posit that you could benefit from reading Mathew 7:1-5.

      November 30, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
      • David

        AMERICA's favorite scripture...just saying

        November 30, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
      • Sara

        Read Matthew 25 and Jesus plainly says who he's going to judge and those neglecting the poor are the ones he does condemn. It will end very bad for them and it came out of Christ's own mouth.

        November 30, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • Donna

      Don't hold your breath Steve. This is how Rachel Evans makes a name for herself. She attacks successful people so that haters can say what a great person she is. She's a really sad, pathetic human.

      November 30, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
      • Sara

        Matthew 25 says your possible a goat if you side against the poor. Jesus will have no mercy for those that mock the poor.

        November 30, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
  17. Big Papi

    Evangelical Christian authority should review, the bible and then compare it to their policies... Capitalism is more important for these people then what is taught in the bible.

    I think Dave Ramsey found his gold mine!

    November 30, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
  18. PB

    Exercise does not require a gym. Healthy eating does not require a whole foods.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
  19. kris799

    Ramsey seems to assume that all rich people have built their wealth. That no one inherits money and that those people may not make good choices. But they have the money to deal with them quickly and quietly. And think of the stars that got rich and lost it because of bad choices. Their money did not protect them from their choices.

    November 30, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
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