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. SJ

    Nurses, doctors, psychologists are just a few of several career choices strictly in the business of helping others and result in obtaining a rather decent income. Yet, we uphold these careers dedicated to meeting individual needs. Ironically though, it's deemed acceptable to bash someone because they are successful in helping others' financial needs and decide to insert their personal religious beliefs in the process.
    Dave Ramsey has helped me in my personal financial decision-making and this article completely demoralizes his character in more ways than one. When I began paying attention to Ramsey I was living out of my car and wasn't even close to the middle class target Evans referred to. I've never had to purchased any of his products and will be debt free in the near future.
    People like Dave Ramsey need a voice in this world. Shame on you, Evans for posting this article for no other possible incentive but to state your personal disagreement. If he only helped one person in this world, wouldn't that be enough?

    December 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Financial education is a good thing – perhaps as part of the school curriculum. Ramsey and others are not altruistic and some of their practices are questionable – the products they sell (with big profit margins) and the advice is not always the best.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
      • WhatsThePoint

        Perhaps they aren't the best... Perhaps anything... But that doesn't mean someone shouldn't have a business that charges just because some god of money management has not deemed it the best program on earth.
        Perhaps schools should provide a similar program as you suggest. but obviously they don't so there is just another reason for the need for his services. And he actually provides a free program to high schools and has teachers and students come on his show that implemented it.

        December 1, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  2. Ray T

    I thought the author had a pretty good angle on the fallacies of the cause and effect relations identified in the article posted on Ramses website. The correlations were based in ignorance and a lack of social understanding. It seems like Corley wrote the article to give himself and Dave's sheep a pat on the back for being so darn blessed. The reality is that Ramsey is now crazy rich and I seriously doubt he can even remember what it was like to be broke as hell 20 to 30 years later.

    December 1, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • WhatsThePoint

      Most of "dave's sheep" aren't blessed financially. Most of his "sheep" are in debt and he has a very good methodical reliable common sense approach to doing that regardless of religion.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
      • Aubry Jones

        Baaaaaah, this sheep got out of most of our debt by doing what he taught. Our mortgage is our last debt to go now but we're 3 months ahead. The problem is Dave Ramsey is associated with Fox News and Fox Business Channel so CNN must attack somehow.

        December 1, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
        • WhatsThePoint

          Cool – me too! Can't say enough about him

          December 1, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
  3. Still Reading

    Someone posted a comment that Dave Ramsey's financial sessions are free. That's bull! There is a Methodist Church in our town offering his financial freedom classes and charging $100. People who need finical planning the most, shouldn't be throwing money at a financial planner. Much less one of the minions who learned it at church. What are their credentials? They memorized the correct chapters of the Bible? Oh wait .... no. They paid a FEE, took Ramsey's on-line course and became certified jr financial planners. Oh goody! And Why do these financial planners always have to throw their religion in our faces? It wreaks of Amway/Quickstar. I am supicous.

    December 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • RD

      The $100 I spent got my wife and I out of $14,000 worth of debt. I would say he was worth every penny.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        All of what Ramsey (and Orman et al) offers is freely available on-line – often without the product placement. Many financial advisors disagree with this type of advice from Ramsey:
        Myth: I should pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first to get out of debt quickly.
        Truth: You should pay off the smallest debt first to create the greatest momentum in your debt snowball.

        From a financial perspective, paying off the higher-interest balances is the cheapest and therefore best.

        December 1, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
        • dnokc

          Mathematically true. Psychologically false. By paying off the smallest debt first, you get a small victory! An incentive to continue! Adding the payment from the paid off debt to the next one on the list, pays it off! More progress! Many people, myself included, have not purchased Dave's products. Dave himself says if you wish many of his books are FREE at the local library. It's fine to have a different view! This is America! His philosophy has harmed....no one, but have helped tens of thousands!

          December 1, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • WhatsThePoint

      Dave Rmasey's show is free, his website, budget froms, and website forum are free. If you want books and seminars, they are obviously not going to be free whether hr runs a business or not since the materials cost money. THere is nothing worng charging for a service. $100 for a seminar (which is a series) is not a lot of money. But there is nothing wrong with charging people for a product or service you provide. I am sure you don't have a moral problem paying for food you eat or the house you live in...

      December 1, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • Aubry Jones

      We took his course at a Full Gospel Church and it was free. AND it worked.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
  4. RD

    Rachel Held Evans wrote this for-profit article. I bet CNN paid her more money than I make in a week. Maybe she should share the wealth and stop misquoting the bible for her agenda.

    December 1, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
  5. Fr33th1nk3r

    I knew it would be something crazy as soon as religion got involved in the story.....yes, "teaches people how to handle money God's way"......LOL. I thought that religion teaches that money is the root of all evil, and that materialism, like seeking to make more money– is a sure sign of avarice?
    Is this another one of those annoying "double standard" thingy's again? LOL– "learn to get wealthy– God's way!"

    December 1, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • Aubry Jones

      The LOVE of money is the root of all kinds of evil. I have tried his method (free) to get out of debt. My only debt now is my mortgaged and I'm 3 months ahead.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  6. lol??

    The Father likes sharing. He shared His Son with the dustballs of the wurld.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  7. Mary Anne Ferrell

    She makes her argument on Ramsey based on an article by Tim Corlew, posted to Ramsey's website?? Really? Def does not know what she's talking about. She should try listening to his program (free) or reading some of the testimonials of those who follow his principles (also free). And he wasn't always a millionaire. His message is NOTHING LIKE the "prosperity doctrine" some religious personalities promote. Altho the Bible does tell us God has a plan to prosper you.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • lol??

      Jesus was the plan all along.

      December 1, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  8. Isaac Bickerstaff

    I can think of no message more calculated to fill it's audience with despair than telling them that their lives are not their own.

    The idea that you cannot improve your life until vast society wide changes have been politically imposed is one so stupid that only a liberal would believe it. let alone say it out loud.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • RD

      true, liberals believe the poor will always be poor. It is very arrogant view point and they don't have much faith that people's status can change for the better. I speak from experience.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      @Isaac: Putting words into someone's mouth and then criticizing what they never said is pure illogic. And typical right wing behavior.

      December 1, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • lol??

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      Mama owns the babies. She can kill em if it strikes her fancy.

      December 1, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  9. Another Voice

    It really bothers me when people insist that everyone can lift themselves out of poverty with hard work without any type of consideration that not everyone has the basic ability to do so.

    10% of our nation's children suffer from food insecurity and a higher percentage have food, but not the nutritious food needed for optimal development. When brains and body are in the critical development phases and do not have access to good nutrition or quality health care, those children fall behind, no matter how good the educational opportunities. The majority of these children will not ever be able to compete with those that were fortunate enough to be born into better off households and received good food and health care.

    We are an unequal society and always will be. When adults don't do the right things to be successful despite their opportunities, I have no interest in giving them much help them until they are willing to work to leave the bad choices behind and help themselves. HOWEVER, when a child grows up in such poor conditions that they lack the skills and ability to benefit fully from the possibilities available in our society, it is hypocritical to dismiss them as lacking willingness when in fact they have been critically delayed by poverty these people claim doesn't exist in our country.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • WhatsThePoint

      It bothers me that someone assumes Dave Ramsey thinks life is fair in the first place simply becasue he gives advice on how to manage money better so you can try to better your financial situation
      It bothers me that someone thinks Dave Ramsey's financial advice is directed at starving 10 year oldswho know nothing about money or credit cards and don't have jobs etc. His program is directed at a mentality of managing money better regardless of where we start, so that we can try to have financial stability and give back to other people

      December 1, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
      • lol??

        Life is fair. Jesus is life. Most find out how fair He is too late.

        December 1, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
        • sqeptiq

          circular "reasoning." Invalid logic.

          December 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
        • lol??

          Some rounders don't get it.

          December 1, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  10. Frank Ray

    I am skeptical of any wealthy person's claims to being a Christian. From Dave Ramsey to Joel Osteen, and everyone in between. I think their teachings are not at all in accord with Jesus' teachings. Can they serve God and mammon both? Anybody who has studied Jesus knows the answer to that, even unbelievers.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • WhatsThePoint

      What specifically do you agree with that dave is preaching(???). He has a program about applying a method to have financial stability and he mentions you should do it ethically and be generous in accordance with his personal beliefs in Christ... I have never heard him say anything implying you should donate money to him intended for god or charity that he keeps for himself. He has free advice and paid products for financial advice. You wont pay for any of his religious opinions or advice – which are quite mild and always prefaced that they are his personal opinion

      December 1, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • becky

      I think you are wise to be cautious about believing people who are wealthy. However, I do think it is possible for a wealthy person to love Jesus and follow Him. It is probably pretty rare, though. But to put all wealthy people in the same "condemned" trash can feels judgmental. Do you agree?

      December 1, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  11. Anna


    December 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  12. Jasper

    There will always be haters.

    December 1, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  13. rlindsl

    Dave Ramsey's opposition to the ACA is very un-Christ-like. Unless he believes that the current healthcare system is God's perfect will and this interferes with that, then he should reconsider his mean spirited opposition to expanding healthcare.

    I do not see Christ in him.

    December 1, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Poster

      You are conflating God's will with the will of a free market. Being against the ACA doesn't mean you are against reform of the healthcare system or that you deny its faults. It simply means you don't agree with THAT approach.

      December 1, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • WhatsThePoint

      I don't recall God / Christ endorsing the AC, healthcare reform, Dave Ramsey, or expanding subsidized healthcare or having any opinion at all

      December 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        That would be hard as there is no evidence that a god exists; however one of the main tenets of christianity is the care of the poor, sick, and needy. The healthcare system in this country needs to be improved and if ACA is the best that politicians can do then why would Ramsey object – I've not heard his plan to improve healthcare.

        December 2, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • ME II

      It does seem a bit arrogant to presume to know that Jesus would support the ACA.

      December 1, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  14. Alice

    "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."

    His point is: if that 17 year old listens to (helpful) audio books she can download from the library for free while commuting to her part time job RATHER than gangsta music or texting with friends, she can become a much more successful 18 year old.

    December 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Jinx

      Preferably Dave Ramsey's books on tape purchased from her minimum wage job?

      Get over your rarified self, you bigoted thing, you.

      December 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
      • WhatsThePoint

        I listen to his radio program for free...

        December 1, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
      • JustLiberty

        She didn't say anything about preferably DR's stuff. You have no basis to call her bigoted.

        December 1, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  15. Adam

    Wow, I guess even the most generous people in the world will be criticized for something. If you read this article and have never heard of Dave Ramsey, I encourage you to listen to his show for 10 minutes or skim through one of his books. The testimonies of many who have changed their lives and their children's lives speak for themselves. I would hate for you to develop this negative perception of a wise, kind-hearted guy. If not for Dave Ramsey, I would have $100k in student loan debt hanging over my head today. Instead, my wife and I are nearing debt freedom!

    December 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  16. Chris

    No one ever said that elevating a individual or family from the ranks of the poor would be easy – It takes hard work and sacrifice and that's where the problem lies. When you get home from a long day of work, do you go the extra mile or watch American Idol? In general, the poor don't want equal opportunity (which they have), they want equal outcomes. It's easier to point fingers than to look in the mirror.

    December 1, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • karen

      I agree with you Chris – Rachel doesn't appear to have spent much time with those families she is trying to defend. As a public school teacher, I have seen poor and challenged families do the right stuff far less than middle-income and successful families. Example: Successful families make sure their kids do all their homework far more often. Successful families limit screen time, and watch educational programs regularly, like those found on PBS (don't even need cable to get your local PBS channels).

      December 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  17. aztekman

    Rachel is definitely showing her ignorance.
    " a poor person might not exercise four days a week because, unlike a rich person, she cannot afford a gym membership", I wonder what people did to get in shape prior to the invention of a gym membership?
    Or they must be working two jobs, "which leaves her little time and energy for jogging around the park.". Maybe she can go up and down stairs or walk/run around the block for 10-15 minutes four times a week. This is better exercise than most get at a gym.
    And Rachel, cherry-pick much to distort the premise of Dave's statements?
    People's habits do have a direct correlation to their "wealth". If one wait's for success to be handed to them, they will be waiting. If one wants success, they have a land of opportunity waiting for them. One can find opportunity at nearly every corner, if they really want.
    Yes, Rachel you do appear bitter and "full of yourself"

    December 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
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