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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. Amy

    I am not rich, but I come from a family that was upper middle class. I was married to a man for 15 yrs and we racked up enormous amounts of consumer debt. My divorce alone cost $50k of which I had to put on a credit card. The lessons I learned from Dave were to live within my means, whatever that was. I am sorry- but poor people DO NOT have to eat CRAP FOOD to survive- that is just, well crap thinking and justification. The simple fact is they want to eat crap food because it tastes good. Period. Let's call it what it is. I have lived this last year on $31K in income and my child support. I do not have debt except my car and my rent. Occasionally, we eat out, and very rarely do I buy processed crap food. Why? Because it is crap. It is not good for me or my kids and is choke full of GMO gluten and a host of chemicals I can't pronounce. And, quite frankly, I can cook from scratch a heck of a lot cheaper. This year, I have managed to live on my income, and save almost all my child support to build a small nest egg for emergencies. Years ago I taught in a Section 8 Housing school. The biggest mistake Middle Class America makes, it to try and super-impose their Middle Class Values on the poor and just ASSUME they want to be a part of the Middle Class. Many are quite happy living the way they live. It is the Libs in this country that can't accept that. I believe the opportunity should be available should someone want to better themselves, their life etc but in no way is my job to make sure they get there, or worse, think I know what is best for them. What the author fails to understand, is this a program based on sound principals....LIVE WITHIN YOUR MEANS...HELLO AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, WAKE UP.....no one is forcing anyone to listen to Dave or participate.

    December 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • Pae

      It's obvious you don't know many poor people since you assume they all have character defects and are causing their own poverty. Yeah, all poor people eat a lot of fast food. How ignorant can you be? There is a certain arrogance in Dave Ramsey and his cult followers which is pretty sad. So sure that you'll never be poor and desperate, and so sure you have all the answers. You could use a little humility and compassion. No, actually you could use a lot.

      December 8, 2013 at 12:33 am |
      • Dave Taylor

        I work 40 hours a week doing carpentry repairs on low-income housing. I see, in intimate detail, how poor people live every day. And the persons you accuse of being arrogant are much closer to being right than you are. You can choose to believe "progressive" shibboleths if you want to ("systemic injustice"), but I choose to trust my own firsthand observations. As recently as a couple of years ago I would have looked at what I just wrote and thought it was the product of prejudice and stereotyping. But you could say I was mugged by reality.

        December 8, 2013 at 9:44 am |
        • Ken Margo

          No dave, you've been mugged by stereotyping. Do you actually think all poor people like living off the govt? Are their some stealing of benefits? sure. I'm also pretty sure those that steal are in the minority. You do know that there are plenty of 800 numbers you could call to report those that are stealing benefits. Have you placed that call? I wouldn't blame you because it's your hardworkin' tax dollars that pay for those benefits! So if you haven't placed the call, you're just as much to blame for the stealing because you let it happen.

          December 9, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  2. castaway5555

    Thanks for this penetrating piece of analysis. Ramsey is self-congratulating and perpetuates the American Arrogance – "You're rich because you're smart. The poor are poor because they're not smart like you are." He ignores Scripture, cherry-picking verses to suit his own self-interests. He slams the poor and praises the rich – were he sitting with Jesus across from the Temple Treasury watching the wealthy put in their gold, he would have told the disciples, "These are the people you need to admire and from them you will learn the ways of the world and success, and you'll be rich, too." The fact that he admits to differences between America and the Third World is a chink in his armor – hopefully, reality will get through eventually. But, then, he'd have to actually proclaim the whole counsel of God and not just his "get rich" rubbish that tickles the ear of the self-consumed while feeding their egos with congratulations for being so smart, savvy, and jesus-loving.

    December 7, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  3. bruxe

    land. it is called LAND

    December 7, 2013 at 6:33 am |
  4. mattdabbs

    Rachel,

    At first I thought you got it wrong when you wrote,

    "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."

    as the list doesn't make that claim at all. But Ramsey's explanation sure does...

    "This list simply says your choices cause results. You reap what you sow. Is the research perfect? No. It is a small sample, but it does pass the common-sense smell test. Does this research or the reason for posting it have anything to do with third-world countries? No. Anyone with good walking-around sense can see that this is a first-world discussion. Is this list a way of hating the poor? Seriously? Grow up.

    There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth in non-third-world settings. To dispute that or attribute hate to that statement is immature and ignorant."

    You nailed it. Thank you for pointing that out.

    December 6, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Did you mean to say causation in that second to last paragraph?

      December 7, 2013 at 7:03 am |
  5. Anon

    Thanks for a thoughtful post about poverty. I can see it both ways, and it IS both ways: there are real systemic injustices in our country, there is no way to deny it. However, it is up to adults to acknowledge them, and then persevere and make positive change in spite of it all. Personal responsibility is key. Still, I agree with you that Ramsey is not acknowledging the full scope of the problems in our country.

    It's easy to judge another until you've walked a mile in his shoes. Likely you would make the same choices a poor person would, because of the situation you would be in. Again, not an excuse for a poor person to not try to effect change. Just have some compassion for the struggles of others.

    December 6, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  6. Phillip

    Wow. Dos the author even listen to his show? His statement that his critics are ignorant is totally proven in this article. Have of this article if putting him on blast with things we would actually agree with the author on poverty. He has said on his show that the things on that list do not make people port but based on SURVEYS of REAL PEOPLE these were the results. This country needs more people like Dave. Not only are the methods he teaches just plain common sense, he also inspires giving.

    December 6, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  7. Beth

    Wow, this is on point. I think it is fair you pointed out the benefits of his program before criticizing him. I've taken his program, and it's helpful. His lesson giving to be more like Christ was beautiful. He can help you get out of debt and budget, and self control is important in today's world. But some of his views are off. He definitely borders dangerously close to the prosperity gospel, and the concept that poverty is due solely to individual irresponsibility is preposterous.
    It bothers me that so many Christians equate wealth with a sign of God's approval. If you rich, you've been a good person and God loves you. If your poor, it's your fault and God is punishing you. Poverty is not an individual punishment, but a global symptom of sin. Wealth is not God's stamp of approval, because God doesn't love millionaires than he loves a person in Haiti or Africa or America who is in poverty. God's love is universal and unconditional, and is not predicated on your bank account. The bible does say, however, it is harder to Love God and Money, because you're serving two masters.

    The idea of the prosperity gospel has always disturbed me, because Jesus talked about the virtues of poverty. If we're modeling our lives after him, should money be our priority? My mother was a single mother, and she came to Christ after the divorce. We had a lot of bills. She had a heart attack when I was in high school, and we had even more bills. She may be poor, but I've never seen a woman with stronger faith. She may not have a mansion here, but she works hard and God always provides for her. Even if you put money in envelopes and pray, sometimes life still deals you a hand you don't expect. The question isn't how can God make me rich? The question to ask is, will I follow Christ if he calls me to a life of poverty? If your answer is no, maybe you should reread some of the verses she posted.

    December 6, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  8. deandeguara

    This post is using Dave Ramsey's name to create traffic. Horrible accusations and completely off base. Saying Ramsey teaches people to get rich and comparing him to "prosperity" teachers is outrageous. You could have chosen Preachers of LA but Dave Ramsey the voice of common sense and a debt free America....come on!?!?

    December 6, 2013 at 1:41 am |
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