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A Few Thoughts on Dave Ramsey and Poverty

December 2, 2013

dave ramseyI don’t follow financial guru Dave Ramsey much.  I’ve heard him a few times on NPR, and I know he’s about offering folks some practical advice on debt and basically how to live financially.  I also know that he blends his faith into his talks on economics.  I think he does a good job with what he does; giving folks some hard truth when it comes to finances.

Ramsey is facing some harsh criticism from some fellow Christians over a recent blog post on his website.  He shared a list from another site entitled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.”  Bloggers such as Rachel Held Evans and Morgan Guyton have wrote strong responses to the post, which in turn has led Ramsey to update the post, lobbing some barbs of his own.  I wanted to offer a few insights on my own.

 

First off, I don’t know if this is different for white Americans, but among African Americans it is normal to have a wide range of economic classes in one family.  You can have someone who makes six figures and someone who is on food stamps.  What this means is that African Americans tend to have a better working knowledge of poverty than whites. One of the things I notice among some of the folk I know that are poor is that they do make bad decisions.  Now, I agree with some of the latest studies about how poverty makes people make bad decisions.  That said, such findings should not put us into some kind of economic fatalism.  People need to be aware that their situation can make them do stupid things, but then they have to learn how to go against the temptation.  Of course, lifting people out of poverty should do the trick, but in the immediate present, one has to learn to not make those decisions even when they seem tempting because money is short.

Second, I don’t think this list (which I think I’ve seen before) is putting the poor down.  It simply focuses on a kind of empowerment.  Yes, there are barriers to this.  But that doesn’t mean the poor shouldn’t try.  I find it interesting that Evans takes Ramsey to task for advocating eating healthy when the poor suffer from “food deserts” but ignores the fact that people and groups like First Lady Michelle Obama also advocate for the poor to eat better.  I haven’t seen any blog post condemning Ms. Obama for her advocacy.

Third, poverty is a complex thing.  There are both internal and external factors that cause poverty.  Coming from the post-apocalyspe landscape that is Flint, Michigan, having a major industry in a one-horse town leave can be devastating to that city, resulting in poverty and crime.  But poverty also has roots in bad decisions as well.  Conservatives tend to focus on the latter and not as much on the former.  I think that’s a problem.  But liberals are also at fault on focusing on the external and not the internal.  Both are major drivers of poverty and have to be addressed.  This is not about blaming the poor- it’s about helping the poor live smarter and ultimately lifting them out of poverty.

Fourth, I tend to think that progressive Christians tend to idolize the poor.  We lift up verses talking about God choosing the poor and somehow see this as some sort of sainted state (for others, not for ourselves).  God is on the side of the lowly and that includes the poor.  But I really don’t think God wants the poor to be poor forever.  Poverty is a sin, a sign of the brokeness of humanity.  I think God would like to see the poor prosper and live better than they are now.  Which leads me to my final point:

I think progressive Christians have to come to terms with prosperity.  If you mention the word, prosperity in liberal Christian circles, you are more than likely to hear it as an adjective that comes before the word “gospel.”  We have a vision of slick-haired preachers that come around telling people that God wants them to be rich.  I don’t doubt there are folks like that who distort the gospel.  But don’t we want the poor to prosper, to live better than what they do?  Can prosperity mean something more than “God wants to make you rich?”  Can it mean lifting people from poverty to live lives more whole?  Can it not just relate to consumerism but to something more?

There are just a few things that come to mind.  I’m curious to learn what smarter folks on money and the economy have to say about this.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathy Hintz permalink
    December 3, 2013 12:30 pm

    Dennis!
    From my blog after a visit to a Tacoma mega church:

    “The pastor is a dynamic preacher, sometimes erupting into almost belligerent sounding thunderous statements and exhortations. I caught a phrase that has worried me all week – or I have worried it – “God needs you to have more than enough so you can help the one who does not have enough.” This bothers me so much, I cannot even adequately explain how the logic bothers me. This statement for me equates to, “God wants some people to not have enough, so you who have more than enough can learn to be generous.” Hmmmm…..so in my head I say, “God wants everybody to have enough.”

    I appreciate your perspective, Dennis.
    Kathy

  2. Patrick permalink
    December 4, 2013 10:41 pm

    “Third, poverty is a complex thing. There are both internal and external factors that cause poverty. ”

    That is true and also why the attacks on Dave Ramsey and his list are wrong. They took a list out of context and then went to the other extreme. “Its not X, its Y”. First, Dave never said it was ONLY X, and not its not just Y. Its ‘all of the above’ are factors.

    There is nothing Dave Ramsey said that implies this list was the be-all of poverty, as if being a book-reader and health-eater would cure poverty. his program is more specific and extensive than just a few daily habits. And Ramsey’s wider body of statements, and his advice to people, make clear that he understands there are external factors at work. Dave Ramsey hasnt pulled punches on the ripoffs that people in financial trouble fall prey to, like payday lenders, collections agencies and rent-to-own ‘deals’.

    Rather, what Dave Ramsey helps people do every day is walk through the process of adopting the right habits to get themselves in a better financial situation, and avoid the snares of debt and poverty that some fall into.

    When it comes to the internal AND external forces, we as individuals cant control what the world does, but we CAN control what we do. For that reason, it’s obvious that helping people can and should focus on those INTERNAL habits and actions needed to get better. Telling people in debt that the world is unfair doesnt help them, indeed inculcating fatalistic views probably hurts their ability to climb out of it. This principle holds whether we are discussing someone trying to improve their wealth, their health or their relationships with others. There’s no self-help advice that suggest fatalism works better than a can-do approach.

    Dave Ramsey is also right to point out that in this country there is enough opportunity that someone making the right decisions in life could avoid poverty: getting at least a few years of college, then getting married and doing both before you have kids – lowers odds of being in poverty by 10X. Staying out of debt, and saving 10% of your income, that vastly increases the odds of building up your net worth.

    The ministry of Mr Ramsey, in getting people out of debt and into financial stability aka “peace’ is as helpful as a ministry of feeding the homeless, except in this case it is a hand UP not a hand OUT.

    “Fourth, I tend to think that progressive Christians tend to idolize the poor. We lift up verses talking about God choosing the poor and somehow see this as some sort of sainted state..”

    This is a wise observation. There is no virtue in poverty, nor is their vice per se in prosperity. Rather the sin is in materialism itself and pursuits that put material above the human. But socialism / leftism itself is a materialistic ideology. This is something the leftists who are embracing the Pope’s latest edict are not paying attention to. they are not reading the fine print; The new Pope is just as disdainful of socialism and collectivism as he is of ‘unfettered’ capitalism.

    • December 5, 2013 10:55 am

      “someone making the right decisions in life could avoid poverty: getting at least a few years of college, then getting married and doing both before you have kids – lowers odds of being in poverty by 10X. Staying out of debt, and saving 10% of your income, that vastly increases the odds of building up your net worth.”

      Patrick, the fact that you suggest that someone can simply make these “right decisions” if they wish to tells me that you don’t live, work, and minister in a culture-of-poverty community.

      * “Getting at least a few years of college”: I pastor in a low-income urban church. One of our key leaders–in her 40s–is a shift manager at a fast food restaurant and has worked for the same employer for 18 years. Because she is a manager, she gets a salary, not hourly wages. Because she must work such long hours, her hourly earnings are actually less than the hourly earnings of the teenagers she supervises. She would love to change careers, but whenever she interviews, she is told she needs more education. She is bright and would love to get some college, but because she works 55 to 60 hours a week with an irregular work schedule, she can’t find a school schedule that works for her. Telling her to just “get a few years of college” isn’t helpful.

      * “Staying out of debt.” Hmm. The biggest financial killer in our congregation is medical debt. Most of the working poor in our congregation either have no health insurance or inadequate insurance. Their income may be barely enough to pay the bills so long as there are no major emergency expenses, but when they have a medical emergency and end up in an emergency room, and then their wages are garnished to pay the medical bill, they no longer have the money to pay for rent and utilities. Perhaps the Affordable Care Act will help with this, but my understanding is that on the lower cost plans, there will still be large deductibles which will still be enough to sink those who have no margin in their budgets.

      * “Saving 10% of your income” sounds dandy, but when I do budget counseling with people in our church, once we record all their income and expenses, I usually at that point say, “The budget we are going to create is a faith budget. There is no way that your foreseeable income will cover all your expenses. When you give the firstfruits to God, that is not because you can figure out a way to balance your budget. It is an act of obedience and faith, trusting that God will meet the other needs.” When that is how our families have to budget, is it wise for me to advise them to “save” 10%” of their income when they are behind on their utility bills or rent or medical bills?

      This is not to say that our families can’t be helped with financial counseling. The fast food manager I mentioned 12 years ago found herself with $29,000 in debt when her husband abandoned her and after he left she discovered that he had left $29,000 of debt in her name that she had had no idea about. By the end of this month, she will be debt free. That is no small accomplishment on a fast food salary. But that still doesn’t answer the question of how she might go to college, avoid debt the next time she has a major medical bill (she has insurance, but her share of the bills is more than her salary can handle), or to save 10% of her income. All these things make sense for most middle-income people. They are out of reach most of the time for the working poor.

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  1. Does God Want You To Be Poor? | The Clockwork Pastor

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