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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. Nicole

    This is the type of religion we need in the world, if we need religion at all- the kind that humbles people and encourages them to think about those amongst us who are less fortunate than they are. Not some prosperity gospel that requires you to twist the new testament into a pretzel to find.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  2. Rob Publican Again

    The reason Dave Ramsey targets evangelical christians is because they have been gullible for 2000 years.

    Wasn't there a pharaoh named Ramsey? – and if I remember correctly he wasn't exactly a friend of the monotheistically challenged.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  3. flo

    This is how evangelicals think. This is their logic and their view of the world. Is it any wonder that they have no compassion? Their tax-exempt preachers are raking in the dough and telling them that if they were TRUE christians they would be too. So they keep voting in reps and selecting preachers who confirm this world view in hope that they too will be rich one day. It is this evangelical dream world that keeps its boot on the american dream. It is why the "faithful" will always see others as some how undeserving poor.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  4. R.W.

    I am sick and tired of CNN constantly putting down Christians!! This is the same old tired arguments against anyone who is not a liberal. Speaking of one size fits all this is the way that liberals want the world to be....EVERYBODY AGREE WITH THEM!! SO SORRY LIBS... THAT'S NOT HAPPENING!!! This article is so typical of CNN...always answering questions that nobody is asking and providing straw man arguments because they don't have a legitimate thing to say about anything.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Sara

      Are you actually on the same website as the rest of us or are you on some sort of filtered browser that blocks the last week's worth of pope glorification stories and tells us how religion brings solace to the Phillipines?

      November 30, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • yikesboy

      R.W. there's no need for a straw man here, Ramsey provides plenty of fodder by wrongfully using the wrong religion here as his support for this strange proposition that there are biblical ways to wealth. The Jesus of the New Testament acts very much like a socialist...
      I for one believe that this 'magic book', like many others around the world that people lean on, quote from and often misinterpret, is about as reliable as any writing of that time period. The worldview of the writers of that time is so different than ours that I believe it is far too easy to misinterpret, project and ultimately co-opt in the worst way. If we are to follow the Bible as accurately as possible, we'd be condoning slavery, stoning non-virgin wives at their father's door (when we find out on our wedding nights)...etc.
      Ultimately it's time to put this particular tome on the shelf as a curio of a different time – when ignorance and fear ruled the roost even more than it does today.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  5. Carlo

    Dear Author:

    I do support some of what you say here about Mr. Ramnsey's views, though it's fair to note he him self has also been bust. More over, if you've participated in his classes you get a real sense that he doesn't really look down on the less wealthy (i.e. poor), in fact he frequently holds up those who live with very moderate incomes (hair dressers, waitresses etc) over those who bigger incomes who blow their money stupidly. That said, perhaps he here has forgotten a little bit of reality and has gotten too caught up in his own success.

    Honestly, that's not what I want to address. No I want to address the faux intellectual adolescent jab at America's founding and your attempt to jump on the "america wasn't founded on Christian principals" bandwangon. So let me remind you then, of a few incontinent truths about this nations founding:

    1) yes slavery was anti-christian to be sure. For instance Rome had already long since condemned the practice and did advocate for freedom of slaves all over. Sadly America proved at it's founding not to be quite revolutionary enough to embrace freedom for all regardless of color. But let us not forget that this was already a hot button issue at the founding of the nation, all the founding fathers struggled with the issue and they really did want to live the principal as purely as they could. This would in part, of course, lead to civil war.

    2) Gender inequality: Again, America here was well revolutionary for it's time, considering women had full and equal protection under the law and could of course inherit property. Let us not forget that the world had a weak understanding of the tension played between role and dignity, considering the dignity of human beings was still a subject being grasped at. I find it something fantastic really, that you would look back on these people living in a different time, who did something quite revolutionary and shout "but you didn't do it my way, it's not good enough!!!"

    3) Jim Crow, of course a continuation of the issues resulting for slavery. Of course Jim Crow hardly existed everywhere nation wide. And it was stomped down, yes way before the 1960s came along.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  6. Mopery

    He made his money the old fashioned way...by fleecing his flocks.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Average Joe

    When the issue's stripped of all the various cultural, historical, political , religious, and socioeconomic dynamics, I think that the core of the issue is that money is a tool. Like any craft, different instructors are going to have different methods of teaching you to use a tool... Perhaps I should preface this more politically correct, but among the real forces that 'shame' the poor are the fast food corporations that aggressively market garbage food with toys and diabetes in an over-sized cup-for 99c. Do they have the right to sell it? Absolutely. Do people have the free will right to buy it? Absolutely. Is it really shaming the worlds 'richest poor' to urge them to avoid fast food for financial and physical health reasons...I haven't heard Mr. Ramsey all that much, but I certainly understand his logical thrust that goes beyond any set of religious beliefs, something akin to "needless debt can dull the tools with which you would build your dreams with." or even apparently more sinister "don't play the credit game that says you really can have everything today with no ramifications" Is some poverty ignificantly influenced by dynamics out of the control of the majority. Absolutely. However it seems like Mr. Ramsey is giving people the opportunity to recognize everything else that is also preventing upward mobility. Maybe he should never have started the program and just merely followed the principles himself and not become a target...Why should people be upset that he's built wealth? Shouldn't it be a confirmation in the very least that he's not a hypocrite? It seems that the real undertone to the criticism is that Mr. Ramsey whether consciously or unconsciously is probing at some of the foundational assumptions as well as some very simple common sense analysis of the widening class chasm.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • R.W.

      eh..ok?

      November 30, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  8. Phillip

    I grew up in deep poverty and then lived broke and homeless for a few years. Today I'm financially free and growing in it. I agree with most of Dave's concepts. The Proverbs message is that a diligent man will prosper in every way.
    Sorry Rachel Held Evans, I think you took Dave out of context.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  9. E. Richardson

    Do not listen to Ramsey, or anyone else, for your dollars and sense (sic).

    November 30, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  10. EU nation

    Ramsey maybe a good financial adviser.... But he has to learn to separate God from business... Didn't Jesus overthrow the tables of people that were making business in the temple ?

    November 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • R.W.

      yes Jesus did do that....in the TEMPLE. But, half of what Jesus spoke about was tied to money (in some way). Jesus actually gave quite a bit of advice concerning money or proper stewardship of money. The notion that it is more holy to not speak of money is ignorant.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  11. Vic

    Rachel is right about correlation and causation, though everything is relative. There is no silver bullet to financial stability, we can only have perspective and put an effort to it but we cannot guarantee the results.

    Rich people have the luxury to maintain healthier habits and make better choices than poor people, it is simple economics.

    Regarding the Bible, what good is faith in God if the intention is a wealth reward?! What good is tithing if the intention is a better financial return and not helping the needy and poor?!

    True faith is based on the "truth" God is. God rewards people in this lifetime anyway He chooses but belief in Him is not a business transaction.

    Natural revelation, aka rules of nature, are given to everyone; anyone can work hard if they can and earn a better paycheck. Anyone can be rich or destitute, healthy or sick, happy or sad, etc. Off course, the choices we make can impact our lives but we surely do not control everything.

    There are things that are a direct result of the choices we make and there are things that are beyond our control.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  12. kabelme

    uh, Ramsey is an entertainer, nothing more or less. The advice is sound. Get out of debt. Get an education. Stay fit. Live healthy. Nothing to argue there. Pacakged in an entertaining way, there is nothing more to it.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • ME II

      ...except that without the Bible tie-in his marketing would not be as effective.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  13. JW

    There are and always were some rich people that had sincerely worshiped God... Though the bible gives the following warning:

    1 Tim 6:17-19- "17 Instruct those who are rich in the present system of things not to be arrogant, and to place their hope, not on uncertain riches, but on God, who richly provides us with all the things we enjoy. 18 Tell them to work at good, to be rich in fine works, to be generous, ready to share, 19 safely treasuring up for themselves a fine foundation for the future, so that they may get a firm hold on the real life.

    1 Tim 6:9,10- "But those who are determined to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge men into destruction and ruin. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains.".

    November 30, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  14. DP

    RHE has done a great job challenging some areas where American cultural ideology has over-shadowed Christian callings at time, but this was reaching for some excuse to criticize Dave Ramsey. There's nothing wrong with saying our choices have consequences. Yes, some people have fewer choices in some areas, none in others, but that's not arguing against the principle that when you do make a choice that it has consequences. We've done the Ramsey stuff without finding a place we could cut back (other than eating less healthy food or moving to a more dangerous neighborhood, etc.), but it was at least useful in parsing out what's a choice and what's not.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  15. yongoro

    "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."

    I don't see that Ramsey or Corley suggested that these habits will MAKE you rich or poor.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • ME II

      "This list simply says your choices cause results. You reap what you sow. " (http://www.daveramsey.com/blog/20-things-the-rich-do-every-day)

      Ramsey sure seems to imply that.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  16. Garden Girl

    As someone who grew up in unbelievable poverty, mostly because my parents were legitmate immigrants and didn't want to (or maybe know how to) receive government help, I hope I can offer a fair perspective about these comments regarding Dave Ramsey.

    Just to clarify, some of the main memories of my childhood involve being cold in winter, hungry much of the time, and wearing clothes that were so outdated they were almost in style again. Because we often didn't have running water, we were also smelly, had greasy hair, and looked pretty ugly. Going to school was painful because we were constantly mocked.

    But because we grew up in a free country, we also received a good education. All of us started working small jobs in middle school, and all 4 of us worked our way out of poverty and ignorance. It was a long, slow climb, but we all own our own businesses today, and are moderately successful. I credit the teachings of Dave Ramsey to making my husband and I almost completely debt free (house, business,...everything) at this point in our lives.

    Dave Ramsey's teachings work for anyone, anywhere, if fully applied. If you listen to his broadcasts enough, you'll hear that he is in fact, very compassionate towards the poor. If you dislike him mentioning his Christian values, then find another person who uses similar teachings and who doesn't talk about their faith. But the principles he teaches are correct, and can be applied even in a third world setting. (Yes, I know, because I've seen it happen even there.)

    So don't hate on Dave too much, because he inspired this one poor girl to dream big, and follow a plan...and now I am one of those who gives large amounts of my wealth to help others. I CAN give of my wealth, because I now I HAVE wealth to give. And for that I give Dave Ramsey the credit. Thanks, Dave!

    November 30, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • tallulah13

      The author does not dispute his financial advice. What she does dispute is his use of christianity as an excuse to acquire personal wealth. And she points out that his generalizations about the differences between the rich and the poor are possibly the effect of wealth and not the cause.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • Sara

      His teachings will work for "anyone"? Really? They'll work for people with intellectual disabilities and IQs below 80 or with disabling mental illness? They'll work for people who lost their businesses due to family illness or who are at home caring for family members with Alzheimer's?

      This advice may be great for the more fortunate half of society, but to tell yourself "anyone" can make it is a self serving delusion that keeps you from your obligations to help.

      November 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  17. skytag

    The problem with the Dave Ramsey's in this country is that they are completely oblivious to the advantages they've had. Ramsey is yet another member of America's Most Likely To Succeed Club who doesn't even have enough sense to realize the club exists or that most Americans aren't in it.

    America's Most Likely To Succeed Club isn't rich kids, it's white males with above average intelligence, who were typically raised in good homes and attended decent, predominantly white schools. All of these traits, while not insuring success, increase the chances of success. As one person I know says, if you're in this group and you're poor, "you're just sorry."

    Everywhere these people look to see examples of success they see people just like themselves. When they look at the list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, the Forbes 400, they see a lot of white men. In 2010 (the more recent year for which I could find a breakdown) the Forbes 400, the richest 400 people in America included one black person: Oprah Winfrey. That's 0.25% of the richest 400 even thought blacks make up 13% of the population. There were 34 women on the list, which is 8.5%, even though just over 50% of our population is female.

    Out of 535 members of Congress, a record 101 are women, or 18.9%. There are 43 African Americans in the House, but only 2 in the Senate. Six CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are black and 21 are women.

    The message this sends to white males is that success is theirs for the taking if they'll work hard and make the right choices. The message this sends to blacks and women is that success is possible for them, but its much harder and much less likely to happen.

    The message you hear growing up has a significant impact on the choices you make, what you're willing to sacrifice to get ahead, how hard you're willing to work to succeed and so on. This is simply a fact of human nature. Kids who grow up being told "you can do it" are far more likely to succeed than kids who grow up being told "you might get lucky, but the deck is stacked against you."

    The notion that racial or gender-based discrimination have been eliminated by laws and that the playing field is now level is naive at best and a lie at worst, and either way it's propagated almost exclusively by people who have benefited from the disparities to which they are oblivious or of which they're aware but seek to preserve for themselves and their children.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • lol??

      Sharia law is coming, so you can lay off on beating up a minority.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
      • lol?? translator

        "The sky us falling! Run away, white folks!"

        November 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • Mulatto

      "it's white males with above average intelligence... I'm being a little facetious here, but seriously? Does the principle apply to "black males with above average intelligence who were typically raised in good homes"? Are white people born with a percentage of intelligent people in the gene pool? Or is it the "raised in good homes"?

      Does the lack of blacks in the Fortune list really indicate anything? Is the insinuation that if blacks were in the same position as the elite white population that they would not "watch out" for their children or "take care of their own". Is the insinuation that the world be a better place if there were more rich blacks? That an incredible goodwill towards all would take over?

      People of any background tend not to trust and would rather hire/promote people who tend not to dress, speak, rap, deal, shoot and otherwise glorify gangster culture. Is that last statement a blatant stereotype. Yes. Are their plenty of exceptions. Yes. Is there plenty of history and daily news to turn people off – yes. I hate to say it, but my darker half people have in general had difficult time taking care of what has been given, have had a difficult time creating generational continuity and for these reasons and others have had a difficult time creating wealth

      November 30, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  18. Zack

    Actually Dave.. " for it flirts with what Christians refer to as the prosperity gospel, the teaching that God rewards faithfulness with wealth." Seems like she is simply making a statement drawing a parallel. I work 40 hrs a week.. go to the gym... heat "semi" healthy, have goals wake up early, ride my bike to work.. and am still not "rich". The idea isn't that if i do this right then i will be rewarded with money and that shouldn't be the goal at all! Anyone who is a christian better deal with that real quick. If a pastor is making 250,000 a year... i may see a problem with that...but who am i... i am not "rich" and i make bad choices, right? Thank you Rachel for helping guide and offer insight. Much luv in christ

    November 30, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Rick

      Zack- you obviously haven't read his methods. Might read before you spout inaccuracies.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  19. Anonymous

    Dave..."I'm debt free"! I don't have any money...but I'm debt free. Yea... whoopee!

    November 30, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  20. Sean

    While some of her points are valid (he does confuse correlation and causation), she's also missing the point Dave is trying to make. She selectively picks the quotes from his blog which affirm the narrative she wants to build of his poor-shaming.

    If you hear what he says on the subject in full, his point isn't that there aren't difficulties for some. The point is that there are always external factors which will negatively impact your finances. You can take that as a deterministic or you can choose to take control of the portions of your life you can control.

    Does he understate the difficulties of class jumping these days? Yes
    Does she ignore what Ramsey is actually saying? Yes

    And it's rather offensive to try and lump Ramsey with the Prosperity Gospel. Sure it will please her fan boys who love to hate on evangelicals, but his "Prosperity Gospel" is actually just conservative financial advice.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Sean- "The point is that there are always external factors which will negatively impact your finances."

      Chief among those is poverty.

      November 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • lol??

      Ya think it's too complicated for Public Servants??

      November 30, 2013 at 2:20 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.