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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. Mark Snyder

    'Systemic injustice' is the result of sin. There will only ever be one perfect 'system', God's kingdom. What can Christians do then to correct systemic injustice? They can help God build his kingdom on the earth. There is plenty of advice in Proverbs, for instance, that echoes Dave Ramsey's list. Such things are written in the Bible to help those who read and follow such advice walk in a manner consistent with God's kingdom. Making excuses for sin or for remaining in the consequences of sin (either your own or as a 'victim' of a sinful world system), if not what God desires of those who would follow him. He sacrificed in order to help make a way for people to have freedom from such things. This way has little to do with material wealth, but it has everything to do with spiritual riches He freely gives.

    December 4, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  2. Kyle

    My wife and I took one of his classes through our church, and we agreed with many, but not all, of his strategies. However, if it worked/works for him, more power to him. Interesting commentary by Rachel Held Evans, and unlike many other mainstream media contributors, she actually quotes the Bible. My only complaint in this article is that the use of the term "evangelical Christians" is an implied stereotype, e.g., only evangelical Christians take Mr. Ramsey's class, and all evangelicals approach how we save and give our money in exactly the same way, etc. The spectrum of Christians (evangelical or not) is the same as in other populations; we are constantly striving to improve ourselves – none of us are or will ever be perfect; there was only one perfect human being. I believe that Mr. Ramsey's approach is this: one has to be comfortable and confident in their lot in life before they can take care of others. Not so different than Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. (1943)

    December 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  3. Anna

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeedE8vH1FQ&w=640&h=390]
    `

    December 4, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • pop yawnni

      omg can someone pleeeeeease give this band a few free new chords... boooooooorrrriiinnnggggg......

      December 4, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  4. captivehope

    Dave Ramsey has helped me so much in the way of getting out of debt and learning how to manage my money. Nothing I would have ever been able to figure out on my own. Of course he isn't perfect, who on this earth is? What Dave has taught me has changed my life. Rachel can complain about his teachings but what I know is that I have been helped by this man regardless of the complaints she has. I will never be rich after following his plan but I will be able to get out of debt, I will be able manage my money in a responsible way and I will one day be at a place to be able to give back to others. In the grand scheme of things Dave Ramsey has had a much more positive impact on my life than negative.

    December 4, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Sara(swati)

      I'm glad you were able to work things out with his help. I agree that while it sounds like some of his presentation needs tweaking, he seems to have helped many people. As long as people realize there will still be those who need help O see no harm in the general principles for debt elimination.

      December 4, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  5. lol??

    Socies are great at makin' refugees.

    December 4, 2013 at 3:44 am |
  6. RD

    Dave helped us get us out of $14000 of debt for right around $100. We can breathe a lot easier because of his class. He's worth every penny.

    December 4, 2013 at 2:21 am |
  7. Reta

    This is a typical liberal response to Dave Ramsey. It's the mentality of, " if you're poor, we all should be ashamed of ourselves and give you money, and if you're rich, then shame on you period." Ramsey is helping people to transition from being POOR to being RICH. This is a conservative, (and Biblical) viewpoint. It is concerned with giving people their dignity back and creating financial independence.

    Further more, he is RIGHT about the habits of the rich vs poor. He isn't condemning the poor, but being honest and stating factual information. It is more a demonstration of the discipline and self control that more successful people have vs less successful people. there is no 'condemning' involved that I can see.

    December 3, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      When you have no clue call it liberal. I'm liberal, trust me I don't want to give anybody money. Part of the problem is conservative repubs "pro life" stand. If you want them to be born. Then you have to help them. If you're going to play daddy, then you have to pay like daddy. That's where the giving people money issue comes from. As far as habits are concerned, there are rich people that don't exercise, eat right, drink, smoke, do drugs, lie, rob, cheat and steal (see madoff, wall street) just as there are people that do those things and are poor. There's a reason 99 percenters exist. It's not easy to be rich!

      December 3, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
      • Ben

        Ken, you sound ignorant. Please stop trolling CNN and go eat some tofu and rice cakes. And lets be honest, you don't really understand what your talking about. And why bring the 1% into this. None of us will ever be in the 1%- nor should anyone want to be. The distribution of wealth in this country is a skrewed up as our moral compass, and sadly it will never change.

        December 4, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
        • Ken Margo

          Let's be honest ben, you like talking out your azz. No one wants to be in the 1%? Please speak for yourself. None of us will be ever in the 1%? So I guess you're a fortune teller! So I guess being poor is something we all should be happy with with.

          December 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  8. Ken Margo

    Another religious con job. Simple man playing simple people for fools. Their are plenty of bible thumpers/believers out there as poor as you can imagine. It's all about selling himself, putting money in his pocket while putting others down. Come to think of it, he sounds like a republican!

    December 3, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • btneumann

      Really ignorant, self congratulatory, words. The man runs a business, and his clients are middle class Americans. He's done well, and he claims to be a Christian. Perfect recipe for people like yourself to come along and look for (or make up) reasons to cast him down. Dave is successful, therefore Dave is selfish and doesn't care about others! "It's all about selling himself, putting money in his pocket while putting others down." So typical. And sad. Oh, and gotta throw politics, the 'R' word in there, wouldn't be a blog without it!!

      December 3, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
      • Ken Margo

        If you take the time to read what others are saying, they too realize he's self centered. I'm sure the people that admire him are just as self centered as he is!

        December 3, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
      • Ken Margo

        "The man runs a business, and his clients are middle class Americans. He's done well, and he claims to be a Christian"

        Yep you said it. He's runs a business. Bottom line. He needs to make money for himself. Nothing wrong with that. Capitalism is great. But he tries to prop himself up to be better than others because of his christianity.

        December 3, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • Kurt Djordjevic

      Amen!

      December 3, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
  9. Rachel Lewis

    As a Christian taking Dave Ramsey's personal finance course, I find this article offending. First off, the author of this post failed to look at the historical and sectional context of many of the Bible verses that she cited. She quoted the verse "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God," but failed to include the sectional context of this verse. Jesus is not saying that the rich cannot enter Heaven, he is saying that if we make money our god it will hinder us from living out our Christian faith- money is only a sin if we are making it an idol! Secondly, "God does not bless people with money" ? I can assure you that if you READ the Bible you would realize that it says that everything we have, everything we are, is from God (that includes material possessions). We thank God for our wealth, prosperity, and even suffering, because they are from God. And that's good news.

    December 3, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • Joel

      How come the word of your supercreature is so readily taken out of context? And how come he needs a book like your babble anyway? No web skills yet? LOL.

      December 3, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
  10. btneumann

    I think Dave could have avoided all of this with a simple introduction to the now infamous "list" in order to qualify his intentions of posting it. That said, I don't think longwinded articles like this are necessary either, especially when they themselves mis-categorize the one they're writing about as prosperity gospel. Kneejerk reaction, emotional writing unchecked. Dave Ramsey is far from prosperity gospel, far from it. You really need to research it. What's more, there was no positive mention of Dave's addendum to the list, no attempt to receive anything from his qualifications. So yea, perhaps a lack of discernment on Dave's part with the blog post. Equally unnecessary and elongated backlash with these kinds of articles.

    December 3, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  11. CNN's Boss

    I'll fire her!

    December 3, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • don Trumpet

      I told you before and I'm telling you again, that's my line. Stop using my line!!

      December 3, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
  12. Karen

    Doesn't the author make – at least by implication – the same type of causation/correlation error, or overbreadth error, for which she critiques Ramsey? I can read her article and reasonably conclude that she believes poverty is caused by systemic injustices, although she gives a nod to individual choice. I'll bet Ramsey gives a not to unjust systems as well.

    December 3, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Loren

      Except no, he doesn't. He says all of it is due to choice.

      December 3, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
      • bossmanham

        Lol. That's a lie. Ramsey talks often about the dangers of socialism and governments that artificially mess with the economy and how that leads to more poverty

        December 3, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          If Ramsey does say that, it is not an accurate statement.

          December 3, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.