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. Tys'.

    Pt:2 You may have made it big. You may have made it to survive well. You may have made it to allow yourself and your family to eat out often. But sorry. Poverty is more diverse than you perceive. Poverty is a problem that falls upon us all and because you have a stationary home that you can come back to in comfort is in its own right a sign to the poor. They see you as wealthy, even if that home is a mobile one. Poverty is a problem of the whole nation. Poverty may not be fully 'cured', i recognize that but we have to acknowledge that there is something systemically wrong concerning poverty. I don't believe it can be fixed but i do believe even you sitting at your computer or smart phone can do something. My dvicd is to actually have a conversation with someone poor... better yet, a homeless 'traveler'. Ask them about their life and you might learn something. Please, learn something about this before you portray that which does not make sense. Also, thank you to the original post.

    January 17, 2014 at 2:29 am |
  2. meh130

    Why should one person working minimum wage for 40 hours a week be able to earn enough to support a family? Why not two people both working minimum wage for 40 hours a week? Why not one person working 60 hours a week? One person working 60 hours a week (40 hours regular, 20 hours overtime) at minimum wage earns 75% more than one person working 40 hours at minimum wage. The 40 hour week is a luxury, not a maximum. All those eevil 1%er corporate executives are working 80, 90, 100 hours a week. That real estate agent or sales person blowing out their number is working 70, 80 hours a week. That small businessman is working 90, 100, 110 hours a week.

    Multigenerational welfare is inexcusable in America. A child born into welfare has free food, free medical care, and free education. Poverty is not a human DNA trait, unless you believe someone is inferior due to their race or ethnicity, which apparently the political and religious left believe with all their heart and with all their soul.

    January 15, 2014 at 10:08 am |

      That was just a great response. Thee are a lot of smart people on this blog

      January 15, 2014 at 10:23 am |
      • marco

        does anyone else finds it amazing that most right wing nuts worship Jesus, a Socialist Jew??? lol

        February 5, 2014 at 4:07 pm |
    • goodnews17

      Exactly what are you trying to say? Are you suggesting we make ourselves slaves to work so we don't get the tag 'poor'? For many, there is not even the opportunity to find work, let alone working long hours. There is something wrong with our economic social political systems that requires working excessive hours to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Our quality of life is heavily compromised if family life and personal interactions are sacrificed for the sake of earning enough money to 'live'.

      January 15, 2014 at 4:21 pm |
    • Paul

      Show me one minimum-wage earner who's *able* to work 60 hours a week even if they want to, and I'll show you a business owner who is out of their mind, and would probably crap their wealthy pants at that oversight. Most anyone making minimum wage is limited to whatever hours will max them out at a legal "part-time" position, because a full-time earner is many times more expensive to small business due to additional benefits that have to be paid.

      January 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
    • franz josef

      Are you sure? I work for a service manager at a dealership who works less than 40 hours a week and makes over 200K. The mega stores and restaurants are putting the little guy out of business. Can't work for ma/pa and then learn enough to start your own business. These greedy stores open 7 a week 24 a day. The small business owner could close on Sunday, but if you work at a gas station you gotta work on Sunday. And yes, a lot of these corporations are EEEEEEEEVIL. "The love of money is the root of all EEEEEEEEEVIL".

      February 1, 2014 at 10:49 pm |
    • allstondiaries

      A lot of people who are working minimum wage jobs are not going to get over time. Heck they can't even get 40 hours. These places will give a person 37 hours a week and will do everything in their power to make sure they don't work a second over. You can get two jobs, but try getting two places that will give you enough hours and be flexible with your other job. Also try living in parts of the country where there aren't a lot of jobs or better salaries. Yeah you can move, but that means leaving everyone you know and your entire support system. Poverty is real. Some people can get out, but it is hard and it takes a lot more effort to climb up the ladder as a poor person then it does for a middle class person. I know from experience. I was one of two people from my graduating class that has been able to make it out of poverty out of over a hundred kids. I worked full time and went to school and would go on a couple of hours a sleep a night and it sucked. I watched my friends work ten hours a week at most while I was skipping meals because I didn't have the money or the time. It is hard to justify that to a lot of people. Get off your high horse and recognize your own privilege.

      February 6, 2014 at 12:38 am |
      • kellienicholson


        February 6, 2014 at 2:26 am |
      • Leng Yang

        And this is exactly what Dave Ramsey teaches. You need to live like no one else so that later you can live and give like no one else.

        August 6, 2014 at 11:25 pm |
        • ronald slyderink

          Ronald Slyderink here as goodnews17
          There are valid points in both what Dave and Rachel are saying. Can we rise above the differences and taking sides and look at what Jesus says is important? Actually, Jesus does consider two sides and simplifies everything, all viewpoints and doctrines about the rich and poor, when He comes to judge people in the end. This has to be important as Jesus spells out the criteria He uses to judge with. It shows whether we truly love Him...and others. It shows where our hearts and faith is.
          31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
          34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
          37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
          40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
          41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
          44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
          45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
          46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

          How do we respond to Jesus when he speaks to us like this? Will we hide behind ignorance and excuses like the goats or will we belong to the sheep who follow and love Jesus. We don't know when Jesus will return but He will as He said and the signs are there. Brothers and sisters in Christ let us seek the Lord and His will, let us pray earnestly for clarification and conviction of the Word, not our opinions, to be led by the Spirit to put on the mind and heart of Jesus to be and do His work. Let us not be distracted and divided and fall for Satan's lies and deceptions. Let us genuinely seek Jesus and His Kingdom first and prove to be his children in our thoughts and actions.

          August 6, 2014 at 11:44 pm |
  3. Perdido

    It's hard to make money when your spend all your time making excuses.

    January 4, 2014 at 2:39 pm |
  4. Perdido

    It's hard to make money when you spend all your time making excuses.

    January 4, 2014 at 2:37 pm |
  5. Javier

    Thanks Rachel for breaking down his stupid ignorant list.

    January 4, 2014 at 3:04 am |
  6. Scott (aka Table97)

    Thanks for a great response to Ramsey! I too greatly appreciate his teaching on debt but the remarks on poverty were unfortunately misguided. Thanks for the reminder!

    January 3, 2014 at 7:25 pm |
  7. Adrien

    Rachel, you are misinformed about Dave's view of the poor. So I'm going to assume to did none of the following before writing this…

    1.) You've not personally taken any of his classes
    2.) You've not read each of his books.
    3.) You didn't attempt to contact him to get an answer to his critics…would have saved you some time, I think.
    4.) You didn't bother to take "the list" (not even compiled by Dave) in it's context. It's just a list. A list that tells the habits of the wealthy vs. that of the poor. Dave never claimed those things MAKE you wealthy.

    I see a lot of excuses in your article. A person needs a gym membership to work out now? I've never had one. A person who is "wealthy" is more likely to read a book than watch TV. So? That's just a fact, just a fact on a list. Sorry that hurts your feelings. Attacking someone and trying to defame their character, with little actual research into the character of that man, is sad. This is just sad. And so, so misleading.

    January 3, 2014 at 5:20 pm |
    • Adrien

      P.S. I can't believe the "prosperity gospel" was even brought into this discussion, haha. Dave Ramsey has about as much in common with Joel Osteen as I do with…I don't know…Mickey Mouse?

      January 3, 2014 at 5:24 pm |
    • BC

      I noticed the same things you did.

      They want to attribute to Dave Ramsey's beliefs what someone else wrote.

      I don't need a gym membership to work out..And what's preventing them from taking those kids to the park on the weekend or for a walk around the block? Or dancing around the house? Lots of places to get exercise that do not include gym memberships (heck why should THEY PAY to join a gym when they could save the money and exercise for free??)

      And Why do they refer to the poor as 'only' women?? I know men who are poor and would prefer to sit in front of the TV as opposed to get out and go on a walk around the block (EXERCISE) or even read a book or listen to an audio book.

      And what the author also fails to recognize is that God does reward faithfulness–giving on the little shows a faith that your not trusting in the money..but trusting God.

      January 12, 2014 at 9:30 am |
  8. c3churchraleigh

    Simply put, you (the commentator of this article) clearly don't understand what "The List" is. Not a swipe at the poor but a simple and straight forward example of reaping and sowing. Everyone wants to reap the rewards of crops never planted and jobs never worked. Being wealthy takes WORK, HARD WORK. Those willing to work hard and sacrifice will be rewarded for their efforts.
    I would add to the LIST that those wealthy look for answers to their problems, not excuses.

    January 3, 2014 at 4:41 pm |
  9. Jason F.

    So I guess no one is going to call her on completely misrepresenting Luke 6 huh? (read the whole chapter you don't need me to point it out for you) Or judging the inward thoughts (that she doesn't know) and feelings of another believer?

    January 3, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
    • DebbieF

      Jason, I am poor. You aren't allowed to judge me. But you have to give me whatever I SAY I need or else you are a hypocrite. I need half of all your possessions.

      And if you fall for this, then you are casting pearls before swine.

      We HAVE to judge others, but with the same meter we judge ourselves. We can't judge unrighteously. If I SAY that I need drugs and what you know I really need is counseling, what are you going to give me? What I want, or what I need? What would Jesus do?

      January 3, 2014 at 5:49 pm |
      • Cpt. Obvious

        Why do you think your second sentence is an accurate statement?

        January 4, 2014 at 2:29 pm |
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