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. Harleigh

    Appears to be just another attack on a person due to his religious beliefs.

    December 1, 2013 at 7:44 am |
  2. Steve A

    I know Dave personally. He was my Sunday School teacher and my wife worked at Financial Peace University for 6 years. Dave is a Godly man and a generous man. He built his business the hard way with a vision and a few good people who believed in his vision. His ultimate goal was and is to make a living by helping people get out of debt and find financial freedom. If a person is going to invest their heart and soul and time into such an audacious goal they had better make a living at it or they will be on the street selling news papers. The writer of this article is so misinformed it's quite laughable. It's easy to judge rich people when you don't know them and you have not spent one minute with them in person. My suggestion to the writer, who seems to be quoting Bible verses that don't even remotely apply to Dave and his life, is to "Not judge, lest you be judged." I started a small business making cross necklaces out of dead tree limbs. I cut them up into blocks and cut out wood crosses with my scroll saw. I wood burned designs into the crosses and turned an otherwise worthless dead tree limb into something of value. If the poor would learn to use their God given creative minds they could find a way to succeed. God bless Dave Ramsey for the work he has done and is doing for the kingdom and as he continues to build wealth for himself and his family I am confident that he will be a good steward of his money and will give a lot of it away to his church, the needy, and his hard working employees that are fortunate to have such a great leader to work for. This article is simply the opinion of an uninformed woman who really needs to take inventory of her own misguided belief system instead of presuming she knows how to run other peoples lives better they they do. Hello...knock knock...grow up!

    December 1, 2013 at 7:41 am |
    • igaftr

      Steve A
      You said" This article is simply the opinion of an uninformed woman who really needs to take inventory of her own misguided belief system instead of presuming she knows how to run other peoples lives better they they do"

      But first you said " . If the poor would learn to use their God given creative minds they could find a way to succeed"

      Simply the opinion of an uninformed person who really needs to take inventory of his own misguided belief system instead of presuming he knows how to run other peoples lives better they they do

      December 1, 2013 at 8:02 am |
    • truthprevails1

      " He was my Sunday School teacher "

      Okay, bragging that he was part of your brainwashing as a child isn't a good thing. The man makes loads of cash off of you fools.

      December 1, 2013 at 8:14 am |
  3. bk1024

    If there is a god and if there is a hell, this guy and his fellow christians, as well as members of the other organized religions, already have a place reserved for them.

    December 1, 2013 at 7:38 am |
  4. Caspar Gomes

    The "economically disadvantaged, urban settings" the author writes about used to be economically advantaged urban settings... before liberals did a real number on them. That was why people moved there in the first place!

    December 1, 2013 at 7:15 am |
  5. Joe V

    Yeah he has some good ideas which practice when it comes to budgeting but I think he has stepped out of reality because he has everything he wants or needs because of how much money he makes. I am a middle class American and have to work for what I make but I use good budgeting techniques and save where I can. I can pay the bills and still have money left over. A lot of the things he teaches about budgeting is not rocket science. Spend less and save more. Its not easy to do some times but when times are good save, save, save that when when a rainy day does come you are not hurting.

    December 1, 2013 at 6:51 am |
  6. Sep

    keep making excuses for people. Eating better and healthier is WAY cheaper than eating fast food or junk food. I don't mean steak and ribs and unhealthy, but fresh food like green beans, lentils, rice, tuna, oatmeal, way way way cheaper than fast food or "rich" eaters. Don't need a gym membership to work out. take a 20 minute walk. Podcasts and many audio books are free.

    Geez, if this author is right, I can only be healthy and happy if I spend money. Give me a break.

    December 1, 2013 at 6:08 am |
    • Mary Eckart

      I was going to comment but you said it all. Except maybe that Audio books come from the public library, free, in every neighborhood. I know because I go through 1 or 2 every week. Same useless liberal excuses.

      December 1, 2013 at 8:02 am |
  7. sus

    This article is making laugh. Dave has helped millions of people change their lives by teaching them how to live on a budget and get out of debt. If this author listened to his show, she would understand that he has great sympathy for those who are impoverished.

    December 1, 2013 at 5:50 am |
  8. KittahMonster

    Dave Ramsey is a smart person. Wouldnt you think a smart person would have smart reasons behind what they wrote? If you do listen to Dave Ramsey then you know that when he wrote those statistics that his reasoning for the poverty part wasn't simply that "they do this because, well their poor!". That is a stupid persons response and also a stupid persons assumption that he's just discriminiating. Of course when people are in poverty they can't afford to eat better or have annual gym memberships! Duh! Don't you think he knew that?! When I read the statistics I knew he meant that! I didn't just assume like a moron that he was being discriminative! Nor did I assume that he meant that poor people should be doing these things if they want to get rich. If you actually listen to him you would know that. He's not stupid and neither should the people who immediately jump to conclusions and take offense. Look at yourselves! This is silly! CNN you can do better than this.

    December 1, 2013 at 5:26 am |
    • lol??

      Paul mentions debt here,

      "Rom 1:14 I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise."

      December 1, 2013 at 5:51 am |
      • Don

        That is what is called "taking a text out of context to make it a pretext".

        December 1, 2013 at 6:41 am |
      • HDaniel

        "Debtor" doesn't mean financially. it means obligated. As in, he is obligated to spread the Gospel to everyone, not just the wise and the rich, but also the poor and the foolish...........

        December 1, 2013 at 8:07 am |
    • KittahMonster

      Also I understand that no one said he was being discriminative. however the way this is written, it just screams that she assumes he is just picking on the poor. and supposedly does not understand poverty. How do you think he got rich? Because well, he was poor once and fully in debt and in bankruptcy. he is no stranger to his teachings.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:59 am |
  9. cross eyed mary

    100 fold

    December 1, 2013 at 5:13 am |
  10. cross eyed mary

    Give! The way to success

    December 1, 2013 at 5:11 am |
  11. HeyBuddy

    Church or God has nothing to do with your financial condition. The choices you make are the biggest factor. Dave gives sound financial advice. But he's not your savior, you are. He's not responsible for the injustices some people face, he gives financial advice, that's it. He's rich, good for him, I wish I was rich. If you've got yourself in too deep who's fault is that? Not everybody wins. Self Reliance people, don't count on anyone else. Truth.

    December 1, 2013 at 5:10 am |
  12. lol??

    Abe saved Sodom and Gomorrah once. It didn't stick. Joseph saved Egypt once. It didn't stick. The US started out with checks and balances. It didn't stick. Americans have been partyin' for about 100 years now on credit. The payback plan uses inflation which shifts the responsibility to future generations that are tryin' to climb out of poverty. It's a losing proposition. It's been quite a fantasy for the "rich" ol' USA where even the PUblic Servants get rich.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:40 am |
  13. Kyle

    We are to use our resources to the best of our ability. Matthew 25:14-30
    Dave Ramsey offers a path for those from all income levels to become more self reliant. His main tenants are to avoid debt like the plague and have a plan. Sometimes it is hard to avoid debt but there is no excuse to not have a plan. If someone develops a plan to use their resources in the wisest fashion they will do better than if they didn't. Same goes for parenting, fitness, study, home projects, travel plans.... Some things don't apply to everyone in their current situation. I am 28 and plan for retirement even though it is a ways off for me yet. If I didn't have a plan when I lost my license and had to rent a room a couple blocks from my job just to support myself I would not have made it to where I am today.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:37 am |
    • truthprevails1

      "there is no excuse to not have a plan"

      Yes there is. If one grows up in an impoverished home and has never been taught different, then they won't have a plan. Education is vital in this world and basic budgeting should be taught in schools.

      December 1, 2013 at 4:54 am |
      • lol??

        Will they have a couple of chapters on coveting?

        December 1, 2013 at 4:57 am |
        • truthprevails1

          You reside in the trailer park when you're not in the asylum, so you would be the one to answer your question.

          December 1, 2013 at 5:15 am |
        • lol??

          So you go gaga about those that live on Trailer Park Avenue?? Choices, choices.

          December 1, 2013 at 5:21 am |
      • lol??

        Hillary's words of wisdom must really be valuable. She DOES know how to make moolah in the real estate and commodity's markets.

        December 1, 2013 at 5:03 am |
        • truthprevails1

          You're thinking Romney, not Clinton...the first one lacks integrity and will never be president and the latter is full of integrity and will be the first woman president (or so one can hope).

          December 1, 2013 at 5:17 am |
        • lol??

          Crips or Bloods, your dialectical choice.

          December 1, 2013 at 5:19 am |
      • Kyle

        You are right and that was my point in that Dave Ramsey is providing people with the tools to develop a plan. He has classes that are taught in schools all across the country to give kids the tools to be able to make a plan.

        December 1, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • JD

      I've been to Ramsey's sales conventions along with other VIP's such as Powell and any other that is involved in that partnership making a lot of money to appear. Dave Ramsey is a good salesman and has a lot of people hooked on him ad his ideas. The financial critics say that Ramsey's advice was good 20 years ago but it doesn't pan out today. I don't really get involved in all that. I'm retired with 4 incomes. I'm not rich by any means those are meager incomes but I live ok. The reason is because I paid everything off before I retired so I'd have debt free living other then electricity water and essentials you have to pay for. My point is Ramsey could give a rats behind how you are doing in your financial planning. He's only interested in A. Did you pay to hear him speak and B. Did you buy his book. That's the reason he is rich plain and simple.

      December 1, 2013 at 7:44 am |
  14. Pradeep Ninan

    Ramsey's defense of the American Dream is actually a different version of Prosperity Theology, isn't it? I would say false teaching like this has been one of the most harmful exports of the American church to India and Africa. It teaches us that what we have is ours because we have earned it and deserve it, because of the numerous wise choices we have made. It teaches us to judge, condemn and despise the poor among us. As we harden our hearts, and tighten our purse strings, we forget all that the Bible teaches about stewardship, about wisely using our resources to build God's Kingdom, and about giving wisely, generously and cheerfully.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:23 am |
    • Jim VB

      Pradeep Ninan – Please read Dave Ramsey's response to the flap about the article. You will find that judging and condemning others is the opposite of what he espouses. He specifically teaches that it is our DUTY to be as financially sound as possible in order to GIVE as much as we can. Don't believe me, take a look for yourself.

      December 1, 2013 at 4:50 am |
      • lol??

        Inheritance is a big theme in the Bible. It's a family thang.

        December 1, 2013 at 5:18 am |
    • M. callahana

      I have a niece whose parents are quite well off. She believes she deserves her preferredcstatus because.......she CHOSE the right womb....so much for choice. We never see statistics about the status and/or wealth of the parents of all these good choice making rich folks...Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard..some indication of two things....he was gifted by God with intelligence and could afford not just to go to Harvard but to blithely decide he didn't need it.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:10 am |
      • truthprevails1

        Oh please don't equate a good man like Bill Gates with christianity, he most definitely isn't that foolish. Bill Gates is an intelligent man who used said intelligence to create a product we all take for granted in this day and age, he gets the credit-no god needed.

        December 1, 2013 at 6:44 am |
  15. ogletreeseo

    I think both the author and Dave have good points and both have an agenda that ignores logic and truth. Dave is right that if most people listen to him and does what he says they they have a great chance to prosper. There are a very small percentage of people that won't be able to because of things beyond their control. The author brings up lots of good reasons but most the time that does hold true. You can almost always point to very bad decisions that lead to poverty.

    That being said I still think that everybody that is in need should get help regardless of why they need help. If the church was not so busy working on ways to build wealth they could be feeding people and providing shelter and giving healthcare. The fact that food stamps exist and Obamacare and social security exist is because the church has failed to do its job. The church should be against those things but not for the reasons they are against them. They should be making them unecessary by providing the service themselves.

    December 1, 2013 at 3:37 am |
  16. Tammy L

    well...if ramsey wants to sprinkle aliitle of his beliefs into his teaching he has the right and we also have the right to tune him out if we choose. The only part of ramsey I have trouble with is ...how the heck can u save up an emergency fund when there are small emergency's practically every month

    December 1, 2013 at 3:28 am |
    • HotAirAce

      I'd start with stopping throwing money into the collection plate. . .

      December 1, 2013 at 3:37 am |
  17. easson

    And don't forget....

    According to the New Testament, Jesus said there is no chance you will get into heaven unless you hate your mother and father.

    Don't believe me? Look it up!

    December 1, 2013 at 2:13 am |
    • hearties

      My mom believes Jesus, she's the best ever.

      December 1, 2013 at 2:31 am |
    • cross eyed mary

      And brothers and sisters and one's own life, too!

      December 1, 2013 at 3:31 am |
  18. Ruby

    I don't need Jesus to pay my credit card balance each month.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • Maria

      Me either, Ruby! It's common sense. One does not need to follow "biblical principles" either in order to be financially secure. I'm financially secure and have been since I was on my own, and I'm an atheist!

      December 1, 2013 at 2:02 am |
  19. JB

    I'm debt-free thanks to Dave Ramsey as is my wife, but you have to take his teachings with a grain of salt. His anti-credit rants are for those who just cannot be trusted with a credit card; some have the discipline to handle them. He has some great ideas. This column isn't one of them. It truly does sound like a tone-deaf rich guy who hasn't had to consort with the help in some time. I haven't listened to his show in a long time (duh, debt-free, don't need to anymore) so I hope he hasn't strayed from his original message. I found him incredibly helpful at one time.

    December 1, 2013 at 1:25 am |
  20. Andy Christiansen

    I am always amazed at how polarized people get when someone shares truth that violates their position relative to a political or personal belief. Why is Ms Evans not allowed to have an opinion without being attacked? I respect and validate most of what Dave Ramsey teaches, it's helpful stuff. But at the same time, is any subject matter expert 100% right all the time? Of course not, is Ms. Evans 100% right? Probably not, BUT she is bringing up some rock solid points that if conservatives could actually listen to, digest, chew on, test and consider, we might all be able to act on some of these needs instead of doing like many of the respondets have done and just pontificate bla, bla, bla.... Let's purpose to go out and change something, go offer a hand up not just a hand out. And go invest in a person not just an opinion!

    December 1, 2013 at 1:23 am |
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