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. goodnews17

    Interesting and somewhat sad to see divisions creeping in but then Jesus had a lot to say about the poor and rich and idolatry and greed, which in essence leaves God out and not trusting him for all things. That is being questioned and behind the controversies I believe. God loves the poor and rich but shows a special compassion for the poor because they lack and are more easily exploited, they also depend more on God and show a greater faith in him. Jesus is quite critical of the rich because most rich people seem to look after themselves or their families not primarily serving God and extending his Kingdom and serve those who need hope and love shown to them. It seems that in reality many rich do not give to the extent of fully committing their wealth to serve God and his people. Giving only from the 'top' can easily be done to justify ones status and tests the denying of self and carrying the cross like Jesus did. It actually shows a lack of total trust. Jesus said 'Blessed be the poor' not Blessed be the rich, instead woe to the rich. The body of Christ needs to look more closely at what is at the heart of what Jesus taught and how he lived and how we need to follow and obey him rather then follow the traditions of men. Remember the Pharisees were all about 'serving God' with their riches and they loved money.

    December 27, 2013 at 2:47 am |
  2. Dave

    Was it just me or did anyone else notice that Ms. Evans failed to correctly identify the verses she quoted? Note in the paragraph she listed the references as being from Luke 6:24 which is partially correct. The first quote is from Luke 6:20 while the second quote in the paragraph is Luke 6:24. It would seem to me that someone with Ms. Evan's journalistic credentials and biblical knowledge would review her article more thoroughly especially given the nature of the article. If she missed something as simple as a biblical reference then it would seem plausible that she might have missed the intent of Mr. Ramsey and his organization. Perhaps Ms. Evans should 'step up to the plate' and request a one-on-one interview with Mr. Ramsey.

    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).

    December 26, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
  3. ghost

    Poverty is caused by stupid governmental regulations combined with insurance Mafia's along with exorbitant prices and rates that folks can't afford. Like gasoline ! Add taxes and fees you get poverty.
    All set up by the illuminate in the name of new world order.

    December 26, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  4. Name*TJ

    Cry me a river. Sounds like a bunch of excuses to me.

    December 24, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  5. Mitech Partners

    It's amazing to me how many people hate what Dave Ramsey is teaching and speak ill of Dave Ramsey. Here is a guy who teaches people how to live a better life, make better decisions and follow solid methods. Why do we hate what he does??? We may not agree with everything he says but it's obvious he's doing a great work. Yes, he's rich. Does that mean we should attack him. Millions of people listen to him everyday because he is adding value to people's lives. People are paying off debt, getting on a plan and changing their financial lives for the better. What kind of world are in where we have to attack a man for helping millions of people do something great with their lives?

    December 24, 2013 at 7:30 am |
  6. rutroehere

    Deuteronomy 15
    New International Version (NIV)
    The Year for Canceling Debts

    15 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. 4 However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

    That would scare the hell out of Davey boy.

    December 22, 2013 at 8:02 am |
    • Dave

      @ rutroehere: What is your point? I don't think this would scare Mr. Ramsey but rather the banks and credit card companies. I'm not positive but I think Mr. Ramsey would be perfectly happy if everyone was out of debt. This would allow people to focus on the truly important things in life.

      December 26, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  7. basedonfact

    I listened to one mega church pastor who came on Alan Colmes' show respond to the quote about it being easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of god by saying that in Jesus' time the gates of the cities were known as eyes of needles and sometimes camels had to be coaxed through them. Talk about cognitive distortion!.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Obapplepie

      That's actually true. The gates were called 'eye of the needle' and that's probably what Jesus was referring to. They were terribly small... and it wasn't just coaxing... it was extremely difficult and all the supplies and baggage had to be removed from it to fit at all. So it's not IMPOSSIBLE. Just extremely difficult. And that makes sense when you see that there are people with money out there who use it for good rather than selfishness. I think a lot of it has to do with where your priorities lie. I don't think how much money someone has determines whether they are a decent human being or not. But it can certainly become an issue of warped perspectives on their part.

      December 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
      • psuedonym

        That...makes a lot of sense actually. In order for the camel to get through the eye it needs to cast off its possessions and submit to an authority. That's a much more solid metaphor than I originally thought.

        December 22, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
  8. Keith

    Prosperity Gospel is probably as responsible for the ignorance of the working class Republicans as anything else. They are teaching those poor slobs that they can be a part of the 1% if they work hard and save their money.

    December 21, 2013 at 4:59 am |
    • counterww

      No they are not. They are saying be prudent, develop good habits and you can make it. But not be rich. Stop your nonsense.

      December 27, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
      • Keith

        No they are not, they are pimping Jesus.

        December 27, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
      • IKe

        "...you can make it. But not be rich." That made no sense whatsoever. Dave Ramsey preaches that Godlike behavior will make you financially rich in the global north. Its that simple. It's also him taking advantage of the cash cow that is Contemporary Christianity.

        December 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  9. D.D.

    Why are Evangelical Christians receiving so much discrimination?? What have we ever done besides work hard, pay our taxes and raise our families in a God fearing manner. As an evangelical christian i feel very "DISCRIMINATED" AGAINST. Will i get the same sympathy from all of you as the GAYS????

    December 20, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Megan

      Would you like the list alphabetically or just in order of importance?

      December 20, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Keith

      I mostly despise you for your arrogance and hate filled churches. Unless you told me to have a blessed day I probably would treat you very well. I am sure if others know you are an Evangelical Christian that it is your own fault.

      December 21, 2013 at 4:57 am |
    • psuedonym

      I was with you for the first half of your comment. Most of the Christians I know are perfectly nice people, even if I disagree with them. I agree that most of them are not elitist wastes of space who play the victim when they are the (incredibly vocal) majority. A lot of hate towards evangelicals in particular comes from the idea that they look down on people who believe differently from them. You help to contribute to this image with your hateful caps-filled spewing about gays. Perhaps if you spread the message of a loving god that I hear so much about instead of what you currently do then you wouldn't be treated badly.

      December 22, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
      • sanantoniopedro

        psuedonym, that was a great response and I applaud you.

        December 26, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  10. TFinCO

    It all boils downs to education. The more you educate yourself on any subject, the better you will become. I can play basketball and enjoy it, But it doesn't mean I am gonna be an MJ or LBJ. Our "problem" if that's what you wanna call it is that we are now self disciplined to study and learn about the things we don't understand. Dave Ramsey is just ONE learning tool to use. There are millions of books out there that teach finance and budgeting and living below your means. But it is your job to educate yourself. Don't blame your short comings on something that neither you or him can control. Take YOUR life in YOUR hands and educate yourself and quit depending on programs and famous people to run your life.

    December 20, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  11. Chuck

    The ignorance in the article by Tim Corely, and Ramsey's even dumber response, is just astounding. Yes, poor person, God is punishing you because you eat junk food.

    December 19, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  12. Mary Hendricks

    men are supposed to sweat as they work the fields to provide food for themselves and their families. Gen. 3 . That is the first thing a man following a Man's biblical year would include. How about a real man doing that?

    December 17, 2013 at 3:22 am |
    • vikkk

      Im sure my husband would, if we didn't live in a city!! A real man doesn't have to labour in a field to be considered a 'real' man

      December 20, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
      • Shawn

        Wow. Way to take things literal. How about expand your brain a bit and see that that's talking about going out and working to provide for your family?

        December 21, 2013 at 8:09 am |

    Luke 9:58 And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

    December 16, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
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