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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. hamiltonmj1983

    Ramsey’s list is not about the poor at all; it is about the middle and upper class and habits that supposedly will help them move up the social ranks and make more money. He is not saying “the poor are poor because they don’t do this,” but instead he is saying, “you should do this, or you’ll become poor! Don’t become poor, do these things and make more money!”

    You see, it has nothing to do with the poor. Ramsey doesn’t expect the poor to engage in these healthy habits; he expects the middle class to engage in them, and uses shaming (you don’t want to be like the poor, do you?) to encourage those habits.

    December 5, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  2. Angelina

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    December 5, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
  3. Ernie

    Rachel,
    I hope you didn't get paid to write this nonsense. Why don't you try listening before jumping off teh deep end?

    December 5, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Doza

      *the

      December 5, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
  4. Sven

    The point of the study is to show the interesting correlation between being a responsible, hardworking person in various areas of life (health, self-improvement, use of recreation time) and financial success. While poverty may come from outside or uncontrollable sources such as catastrophic illness or by being born in an extremely oppressive environment, it's very unlikely that wealth will be given to those who sit back, complain, and wait for the government to provide. There is an underlying reaping & sowing mechanic in this world that often governs work and wealth. There will always be exceptions, but most people living in America can take steps to improve their financial situation even in the face of 'system injustices.' One of the best things about Dave is that he motivates people to get off their rear ends and DO something about their situation.

    December 5, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  5. Katy

    You are very misinformed about Dave Ramsey and his teachings. If you would better research, you would find how many lives this man has turned around and the reason why. He will tell you that the principles of his program are "common sense", however most people in this country obviously don't have enough common sense to stop destroying their lives and their families lives with money . His motto's are to "live like no one else, so you can GIVE like no one else". Its not at all about obtaining wealth so that you can keep it for yourself. It's also not about cutting down the poor. It's about empowering people to make positive changes in their lives, with hard work and discipline, in order to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty. His personal story is that he gained a mass of wealth, by borrowing money from the banks in order to purchase real estate. Then he lost it all. The wealth he has gained through his "Dave Ramsey" teachings, in my opinion is well earned and well deserved. Far more than any movie star or athlete. Being wealthy isn't a sin if you have earned your money honestly and you give regularly. Money isn't evil unless you choose to do evil with it. I encourage you Mrs. Evans and the rest of America to listen regularly to this man's radio program and talk to people who's lives he has changed, before another young person goes into debt, another marriage fails over money issues or another person feels they can't be on this earth any longer due to financial crisis. You will hear how much help and hope he has given. By the way he has changed my family's life around and although I am Christian, it really has had nothing to do with the Biblical aspects of his program.

    December 5, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  6. Jacob Coleman

    Rachel,

    You are dead on. As a pastor and a student of this particular subject over the past 20 years, I'm actually worried about those injustices as you mentioned them. We (believers and the wealthy) will be held accountable for the injustices we stood by and allowed to happen. Yes, there are natural consequences for laziness. Yes many people can do something about it. It's just plain ignorance of scripture and the realities of a sinful and corrupt world to suggest that we as wealthy people (I count myself among the wealthy) shouldn't be scared of the personal responsibility WE have. The cause of poverty is actually sin at its core. Sometimes it is the corrupt nature of things that more contributes than an individual's choices. The measuring stick for me and for Mr Ramsey is going to be a lot longer than that of my poor brother down the street. That is a reality in scripture that should scare us to action if we believe scripture is true. Thanks for the insight.

    December 5, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  7. tj

    I read the post differently than you. I thought the list was just a list and didn't imply that poor people are horrible because of these things, just said, there are differences that poor people do, and I took it as a way of questioning why it's like this. I also thought Dave Ramsey is a little harsh in calling people immature, etc. but I thought he was sincere in this and that I think he wants people to live up to potential and that there are habits that one can take over in order to change. But I think you're also right in saying there's bigger issues in just that poor people are fat and rich are skinny. These are things that should be examined and I would like to see you do more on reasons why these things happen and like Dave Ramsey, whether it's for profit or not, you find ways to create these changes.

    December 5, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  8. lol??

    All hail the PUblic Servants!! Ya might try lookin' at San Bernardino for a littlle eensie peeksie of socie LUV.

    December 4, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
    • Huh??

      Huh??

      December 5, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  9. Moore

    Warren Buffet complains that his secretary pays more in Federal Tax than him .. does it even cross someone's mind "what is Warren Buffet's Annual Paycheck?" – could his secretary pay more because her annual "income" is more than his – if you advertised his job (with his actual annual salary) who would apply?? People need to understand that Warren Buffet makes more money with his investments – his actual income is below his secretary!!! HELLO anybody out there!! Hence, this is the reason we are in the financial trouble we are in – I say LISTEN to RAMSEY – the moment we paid off our mortgage – a HUGE relief was lifted from our shoulders. We have never owned a NEW Car, all cars are paid for with cash – our children won't be burdened with school debt .. we don't own a 70 inch TV or go on cruises every year .. we look at our finances and BUDGET EVERYTHING!! Credit Cards have NEVER received and Interest payment from this house .. more people need to live like nobody else so you can live like nobody else 🙂 GO DAVE GO 🙂

    December 4, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      I'm happy things worked out for you. Unfortunately not everybody gets the same breaks in life. Some hit the lottery, some get a devastating illness that dooms them. Keep in mind just like tomorrow isn't guarenteed, neither is good health. So trust me, a lot of luck is involved also.

      December 9, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
  10. Peacemaker

    Something worth thinking about: http://www.covenantoflove.net/finances/rachel-stop-whac-a-moling-other-christians-please/

    December 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
  11. dtomolson

    Rachel, Thanks for sharing this well written and articulate response to Ramsey's troubling ideology. My wife and I took his class with some friends and found it helpful. We are all middle-class, and though in some ways affected by the economic crisis caused by the same neo-liberal policies that Ramsey champions – the repeal of Glass-Stegal, deregulation, etc. – we were able to make better financial decisions with the resources we have. Good and fine. There are a lot of problems, however, with Ramsey's approach, one example is the theological acrobatics he undergoes in his FPU course in order to argue that Jesus homelessness justifies and even sanctifies American home ownership. It's a shame that so many American Christians are as ignorant as they are regarding systemic injustices, not the least of which are America's geo-political and economic sins that we all, as Americans, benefit from. The 20th century interventions in Latin America – years before the Cold war began someone as isolationist as Wilson didn't blink about invading and occupying Haiti – provides plenty of examples, as does our meddling in the MIddle East and Africa now. It saddens me to see a theology that so blatantly ignores and covers over larger realities, in the name of personal responsibility, in order to justify and keep the Principalities and Powers of our day and age intact. I could go on, but I will spare you and any other reader who has read this far. What I really want to say is keep up the good fight. You are articulate, thoughtful and generous. It is particularly helpful for me to read someone who hasn't given up on the whole lot of them, it makes me think that maybe, maybe, I don't have to. God's speed.

    December 4, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  12. Anonymous

    There're two sides to everything. It is quite true that a lot of poor people (perhaps the majority) make poor choices and have bad habits. That's something that anyone who has ever lived or worked with poor people would know. Of course, it's also true that getting out of poverty is hard and that a lot of middle-class people make poor choices and have bad habits but don't end up in poverty.

    So, if Ramsey's article is intended as advice, then I'm all for it–how is it wrong to advise poor people to make their children read books? But if the purpose is to blame poor people for their condition, that's where it's problematic.

    December 4, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
  13. Judy Delaney

    For a guy trying to help people get out of debt and remember what hope is, this is an unnecessarily critical article.

    December 4, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • Brian

      Judy, you clearly have a profound misunderstanding of not only Christian scripture, but this spot on article steeped in scripture. One only has to look at Ramsey's newish home to see "where his heart truly lies."
      http://www.coolsprings.com/news/dave-ramseys-house/

      December 4, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
      • Dudley

        Making the argument that someone who makes responsible choices and then doesn't deserve to benefit from it is foolish. This is like saying that those who built railroads, aircraft, newspaper or computer empires were all corrupt, and didn't deserve their wealth. But, they provided something that the rest of society deemed as useful, and even necessary. Why shouldn't they be compensated for providing that to society? Are you suggesting instead that Dave live in a shack, and give all his money away to the government or others? What DR does with his own money is is own choice; he is not borrowing or asking the government for a handout.

        If someone makes a product or sells a service that is of value to others there is nothing inherently wrong with that. A smart buyer would evaluate the options available (even other financial advisors instead of DR), and be able to make choose if that product was worth the value being paid. No-one coerces people to buy into DR's system. Most of the basic concepts can easily be found on the internet for free anyway. The program just puts it all together in one organized place with a system of books, videos, and training. There was a cost to developing that, and therefore DR's company should be compensated.

        December 4, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
        • Memphis

          Thank you for saying that.

          December 4, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • DaveNotRamsey

      Rachel's article was remarkably generous compared to what others are saying about this. I don't doubt that Dave wants to help people, including poor people. However, he displayed with this list and his fiery defense of it that he doesn't understand them–at least, not all of them. He only understands those who need only to change their personal habits–he can't fathom that there are actual, real, systematic barriers to getting un-poor. And yes, even in the US.

      December 4, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
  14. Eioljg

    People who talk to those who can afford to pay them or write books for those who can afford to buy then , aren't contributing to the primary economy, that is, working at a job that provides for someone's food, clothing or shelter. Does he ever do any WORK directly for another person? Does he even iron his own shirts?

    December 4, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Rev. Ellen

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffbgfFNu49w&w=640&h=390]

      December 4, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • Sara(swati)

      Withholding any opinion about Ramsey, I should think we would offer respect to people who work outside providing food, shelter and clothing. i, for one, am very glad to have teachers, medical and mental health professionals, police and firefighters as important members of my community.

      December 4, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
      • lol??

        Yup, sure looks like it when a retired Lieutenant makes $10K/mo and gets over a $100K bonus for bein' a gud guy. Then SS down the road. All hail the servants!!

        December 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
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