I 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.