I got five dollars every week for an allowance. Sometimes it was a five-dollar bill. I preferred when it was five ones – it made splitting it up easier. Occasionally it included quarters. My mom would laugh at that, and I would walk away feeling like I got cheated regardless if the value was the same. In my mind, it wasn’t.
I would take the money upstairs into my bedroom, open the drawer to my desk and begin putting it into various envelopes. Each enveloped represented something I wanted to save for. The first envelope I can remember was for a boom box. Yes, a boom box. I would put however much of my allowance I wanted to in each envelope. Three dollars for the boom box. One dollar for miscellaneous something-or-others that caught my eye. Fifty cents into some other envelope. And then I’d pull out the final envelope. Fifty cents for my tithe.
My parents worked to instill financial responsibility into my brother and I from a young age. My first job was when I was 13. I started paying for gas in my car right away. I got the talk before I went to college. Not that talk. The credit card talk. Get one, build your credit, but pay it off every month – no exceptions. I understand and appreciate fiscal responsibility, living within and under your means, and giving generously.
So for a long time, Dave Ramsey was a positive name for me – and, to a large degree, still is. I think his basic principle of “living like no one else so you can give like no one else” is a great axiom. I wish more people would live more simply so they can give to more things. It is a lesson I am still learning and working to apply in my life. If that is all Dave continued to teach, I wouldn’t care one bit.
However, over the last couple of months I have seen some strange things flying around the interwebs from him. The first was a list of 20 things rich people do every day. And if that was the only part of the list, I think few people would have taken notice. But it wasn’t. The list was actually a compare and contrast of 20 things rich people do that poor people don’t. The first one on the list had to do with how many calories of junk food rich people eat versus poor people. The list went on to included things like making happy birthday calls, writing down goals and watching TV. The point of the post was, “If you want to be rich or successful (which seemed to be defined by being rich), then do these things.
I have no doubt there is a statistical correlation between these habits of both the rich and the poor. None. What is troubling to me is the strict cause-and-effect nature assumed between doing these things and being rich or poor. No account is given to larger systemic realities contributing to these differences. For example, it has long been noted that getting better food to poor neighborhoods is difficult. They lack the type of full-service grocery stores to carry fresh food. Or the fact that food with higher nutritional value is more expensive. None of this is taken into account of the very first statement: Rich people eat less than 300 calories of junk food per day.
The over simplification of these type of statistics are troubling. It implies that poor people choose to be poor. Or, that they wouldn’t be poor if they just made better decisions. If they wrote down their goals, watched less reality TV, or read a book then they wouldn’t be financially destitute. Yes, these habits likely point to other habits that lend themselves to the financial success of individuals. But we must acknowledge that privilege plays a role in the choices we make later in life.
I started this to point out the privilege it was for me to grow up in the family I did. Because I did not choose to be born into a well-to-do middle class family. I am grateful for that, but it was not my choice. I did not choose to have a mother and father who, not only expected me to graduate high-school, but college as well. I am grateful for that, but it was not my choice. I didn’t choose to have parents who worked to instilled financial responsibility into me. I am grateful for that, but it was not my choice.
That list could continue on and on. I am privileged in every sense of the word because I didn’t choose those things. It was not my doing. Never did I wake up and say, “Today I will be born into a family that values education.”
So many kids don’t get those privileges. Many children are born into families where there may or may not be an option to save money. Many are born into situations where eduction is secondary to getting paid. Where saving is secondary to eating. Where reading is secondary to surviving.
This is why this follow-up from Dave enraged many across Twitter and the blogosphere:
“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. You can make better choices and have better results.”
This fails to acknowledge that there is so much that people cannot control when it comes to being poor. Dave understands the systemic impact for people in third-world countries when he says, “The third-world economy is and should be a whole different discussion,” but he fails to see that, while there are differences in systems and issues for those in third-world economies, there are very real systemic difficulties for the poor in America and other first world problems. It isn’t just about choice.
This isn’t to say choice isn’t involved. Choices matter for the poor just as they do for middle-class suburbanites. But the number of obstacles in front of a child born to a single-mother on welfare are much greater than those of my son who was born into a family of well-educated parents living in suburbia. Becoming financially well off isn’t simply about making better choices, or coming to understand Biblical principles, or developing better habits. They may help. They absolutely matter. Poverty isn’t an excuse for bad choices. But making good choices is not the only thing standing between poverty and wealth. One Biblical principle is that our fight is not with flesh and blood, but is with principalities and powers. Choices and habits are flesh and blood. Systems of injustice and oppression are principalities and powers. And these powers exist in first-world economies just as they do in third-world economies.
Ultimately, the danger is that we make wealth, or the ability to earn wealth, a virtue. Equating a person’s goodness with their wealth is wrong. Because it doesn’t just make rich people good, it makes poor people bad. Therein lies the real problem with Dave’s list and response. It implies, intentionally or not, that rich people are good and disciplined, and poor people are bad and make bad choices. But, rich people are not better people. If we learn anything from Jesus we learn that the poor have value. Even that the poor are blessed. For Jesus, it was never about a person’s means. Rich are not more valuable than poor, nor poor more valuable than rich. Jesus showed us, by the attention he gave to both rich and poor, that all people are valuable.
Or as Proverbs says, “Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all.” (Proverbs 22:2)