Rich vs. Poor

By | December 24, 2013

This is part 2 of a blog I recently wrote regarding one of Dave Ramsey’s blog posts. Please read at least the first few paragraphs of part 1 for some important context.

In Ramsey’s original post, he shares a list of certain activities and the difference in the percentage of wealthy vs. poor who participate. Ramsey didn’t share anything beyond this which would have left it somewhat open to interpretation. However the list does suggest that the wealthy are so because of their behavior and likewise the poor are so because of their choices. Though not clear in the original posting, in his follow-up comments Ramsey states that the point he wished to make is that out actions make a difference. That is true. But do they make all of the difference? After careful reading, I don’t think Ramsey believes so, however he sure gives the impression that they make the vast majority of the difference.

It’s certainly worth noting here first that statistics are tricky and need to be treated carefully. In this case, for instance, correlation doesn’t necessarily indicate causation. In other words, just because two things are related doesn’t mean one caused the other. For example, “86% of wealthy love to read vs. 26% of poor”. There is an identifiable relationship between love of reading and the amount of wealth one has. Yet while true, this doesn’t necessarily mean that reading makes you rich, or that all wealthy people love to read. There may be (and likely are) other factors not included in the statistic. For example, those with more money can purchase more reading materials. On the other hand, some poor people may be illiterate or have limited reading comprehension. Though this point needs to be made, it doesn’t seem as though this is really Ramsey’s fallacy. These statistics merely align with his preexisting beliefs it would seem.

There are two closely related, common fallacies which stick out to me in Ramsey’s response. (Let me note, this may not be what Ramsey was intending to say, but it is how it came across to me.) The first could be summed as as “because I had this experience, you should too.” Ramsey mentions how he started out with very little. He managed to gain a lot, but then lost it because of his bad decisions. He has now gained a lot financially again. He seems to be saying that, because is gain and loss were primarily due to his choices, the same should be true for everyone else.

But is that true? Confusingly, he later goes on to talk about how different people have more or better of one thing or another, and how “the talents and treasures on this earth are not distributed equally”. In this paragraph he seems to be saying that some people have more simply because things aren’t distributed equally, not because they’ve made better choices. I say this is confusing because it seems to go against the thrust of what he has said through most of the rest of his response.

In either case, I believe there is a problem with the idea that “this has been my experience so it will be yours too.” While he may have started out with little financially, it doesn’t sound like he factored in numerous other things which may have contributed to his success. He likely had education, experience, a network of people, a “safety net”, and more belief in the possibilities due to his background. Many people who are poor have grown up in that environment and lack many of the things that middle-class people don’t even realize they have.

Now Ramsey does express his desire to teach people to make better decisions in handling their money. That’s great. I believe that many people with low income could learn how to better manage money when they get some. But it seems that the bigger problem for the poor is bringing in a decent income in the first place. My impression is that financial planning / education does more to help those with middle-class incomes manage their money better. What I’ve encountered doesn’t offer training in how to improve one’s income. I know that in the past when I was struggling to find work, many of the financial stewardship messages became insulting, and served to remind me of what I didn’t have and how I was going to be worse off for the rest of my life, etc. Telling me how to manage money when I didn’t have any wasn’t helpful.

The second related fallacy is the belief that certain actions guarantee certain results. Perhaps this is just another way of saying the same thing. But I think it’s worth mentioning. Because a person takes action “A” and gets result “B”, it’s easy for them to believe that anyone who takes action “A” will also get result “B”. This is especially true when result “B” more or less requires action “A” to be taken first. For example, you’re not likely to get a job if you don’t apply. But just because two people both apply for 10 (or 100) jobs doesn’t mean they have an equal chance of getting one. However, the person who does get a job is tempted to believe that the one who doesn’t must not have worked as hard or done things as well as they did.

I hope the big problem with this is clear to you. When you believe that the good things in your life are a result of yourself, you believe that you deserve them. And if you believe the above, you (likely) will believe that the person who doesn’t have as much deserves not to have it. In such case, there’s no reason for compassion. To me this is archetypal pride: “I am somehow better and therefore more deserving than at least some other people.” That’s a sin. Stop it. (It is my impression that most people who hold this kind of view are the ones who “have” and whom are generally unacquainted with any “have nots”. When you get to know people, you learn that the variety of stories people have hardly fit into one “box”.)

I’ve talked at length but want to quickly comment on a couple of other things which Ramsey says in his response:

  • “If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.” So apparently conservatives are the only true, biblical Christians? I don’t believe that’s fair (or accurate). Another sin is dividing up followers of Jesus into different factions…
  • “There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth in non-third-world settings… One of the main reasons our culture has prospered is because of our understanding and application of biblical truths… God has blessed our efforts…” Aligning Christ and the Bible with wealth and prosperity hints at a “health and wealth” gospel. It seems to be in danger of running completely off track of Jesus.

More could be said, and I certainly haven’t covered every nuance of wealth and poverty, but I will leave it at this for now.

photo credit: Consumerist Dot Com via photopin cc

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