Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making

Behind the controversy over Dave Ramsey’s “20 Things” post and his defense of it, there’s an assumption that poverty in America is fundamentally different from poverty in the developing world.

Almost everyone — including Dave Ramsey — accepts there are systemic, structural injustices which cause poverty in the other parts of the world. “The third-world economy is and should be a whole different discussion,” Ramsey writes.

When it comes to poverty in America, however, it gets written off as a consequence of poor decision-making by individuals:

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. 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.

How is it that we can see the systemic causes of poverty elsewhere, but not in our own country? Do we think because our ancestors got rid of institutional slavery and child labor that there are no more structural injustices to be rooted out? Or are we so beholden to a capitalist, materialist ideology that we can’t even entertain the possibility of any flaws in our economic system?

Or do we just think we’re better than everyone else? Again, Ramsey:

One of the main reasons our culture has prospered is because of our understanding and application of biblical truths.

Translation: we prosper because we understand the Bible better. The Bible gets reimagined as a roadmap to prosperity, instead of a roadmap to the cross. Financial success is reimagined as proof of God’s favor; Jeremiah’s lament against the wealth of the wicked is quietly purged from our scriptures.

And so we tell ourselves (and our impoverished neighbors): if you are poor and you live in America, it’s your own fault.


Sure, there are people in financial distress because of bad choices that were made. (In fact, in recent years almost all of us have experienced some measure of financial distress because of bad choices made not by those at the bottom of the economic ladder, but by those at the top.) But do we really believe there are no structural or systemic factors at work, causing and perpetuating poverty in America?

Blacks and Native Americans are nearly three times more likely than whites to live in poverty. Do we really believe the economic and social disparities affecting black communities have nothing to do with centuries of slavery and segregation — not to mention subtler forms of discrimination that persist in our day? Do we really think the massive displacement (and partial genocide) of Native Americans is unrelated to the comparatively poorer health and economic outcomes they experience today?

Do we really think we can end poverty just by telling people to “live within their means” when a quarter of all jobs in this country don’t pay enough to put a family of four above the poverty line? Do we really think it’s just a matter of telling people to be smart with their money when the average amount needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment exceeds the average renter’s wage by $4.50 an hour?

Do we really think poverty is just a failure of personal drive to get an education when schools in poor communities receive less funding and have to cope with outdated equipment and crumbling infrastructure?

Do we really think poverty in this country is just a matter of personal decision-making?

To fail to acknowledge the systemic factors affecting poverty is to perpetuate them.

In response to the list I shared yesterday, someone rightly asked, “Where’s the hope?” It’s all well and good to diagnose, but what about actually helping people out of poverty? It’s a fair question. I believe the first step in tackling poverty is to be honest with ourselves about the causes and contributing factors. We cannot help someone until we dismantle the stereotypes that prevent us from seeing and understanding them properly.

24 thoughts on “Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making

  1. Absolutely! And two other groups that are often left out of the discussion about poverty are immigrants and refugees. These two groups of people in the U.S. are often living below poverty level… And many of the reasons for this are because they are bumping up against all sorts of barriers: language differences, lack of education or literacy, understanding U.S. culture and economics, dealing with other issues such as the trauma they have been through in getting to the U.S., and just trying to survive day to day. Most of the children, youth, and families I work with in my ministries are immigrants or refugees, and – although they receive some assistance when they first get to the U.S. – it is not enough for many of them to be able to support themselves and their families. (And many of the families I work with from Burma take on extra children whose parents were killed back in Burma. So several of these adults or young adults are trying to support very large families in tiny Chicago apartments.) When they are lucky enough to get one or two jobs, they become some of the hardest working people I know: juggling school and work, sometimes 2 hour commutes, working in some of the hardest jobs (such as tough factory or service jobs), with some of the worst work schedules, etc. etc.

    Although these are a little outdated, here are some interesting articles on the topic:

    Click to access DP2004-06.pdf

    I agree that the hope comes with first recognizing the causes and the cycles of poverty in the U.S. and then working to help fight for better practices and policies that help those in poverty get out.


  2. Thank you, Emily. Although I intend no personal disrespect to Mr. Ramsay and have many friends who seem to have benefited from his knowledge, I always want to learn more about the flip-side of a perspective. Yes, it is true–and has been said over and over in this article and the previous one–poverty is a much more complex concept than can be stated or discovered in one place. There are many reason for it: culture, upbringing, poor decisions, poor choices/opportunities, poor nutrition, discouragement, discrimination, depression, mental illness, lack of empathy on the part of wealthier persons and even (especially) the trickle-down economics of business and politics. I think the most important thing to remember though is to “love thy neighbor.” If we seek to love and help, all the pieces can come together to make a difference.


  3. Liberal ideology is the path to poverty and following Scripture is the path to riches – what kind of gospel does this thinking lead to? The false gospel of materialism.

    Thanks for helping us think through this sad episode in Mr. Ramsey’s ministry.*


    *I hesitate to call his work a ministry any longer, though, based on how he’s promoted the list and handled the criticism. I think form now on I’ll just refer to his enterprise as a business.


  4. Clearly, better choices produce better outcomes – on the average.

    But that doesn’t negate the fact that a bad starting point and pretty good choices, still tends to produce a outcome that is inferior to that resulting from a good starting-point and pretty bad choices.


  5. Thank you for sharing. As a social worker for the past 16 years and a community developer in the United States for the past 8 years I can tell you there is hope. I see it everyday. When people come together and share their skills, talents, social networks and themselves with each other amazing things can happen. I have been involved with such work through Communities First Association and Circles campaign – both use an Asset Based approach and both have relationships as a driving force for tackling the issues of poverty. One of the biggest lessons I have learned, is that we all have poverty in our lives – we all have places that need help, love and care and we need to be in relationship with others to do this. Find our more about the work I do at http://www.thinktank-inc.org and the partners that we promote at http://www.communitiesfirstassociation.org and http://www.circlesusa.org


  6. I whole heartedly agree. I have known poor people who make awful decision – which doesn’t help their situation. But on the other hand I know wealthier people (or at least their parents are wealthy), who make the same awful decisions but have a safety net which protects them against the consequences of said bad decision. For example, I have a relative who had a DUI and wrecked her fancy German care (paid for by her parents). If you were poor and this happens, not only would you be without transportation, a driver’s license, a black mark on your record (which makes finding a job more difficult), possible injuries (and expensive medical bills), and you might also end up in jail. As for my relative’s case, her parents had a good lawyer and somehow got her out of whatever legal problems, bought her a new car, and they pay all of her bills, so she doesn’t have to worry about working.


  7. Thank you for this post, your rebuttal is superbly followed by your piece “20 Things the poor really do every day”. There is so little compassion for Americans in America today, I don’t recognize my own Country. The Ruling Elite are culling our population and dividing us for slaughter by propaganda (i.e. Religious rhetoric) and legislation ( i.e Stand you ground laws via ALEC). Have you considered doing a piece on Illiteracy? Maybe get a head start on the next American Population the Elite will soon eliminate from being worthy of a place in their own Society, too? Or the Mentally Ill, Children, Women, or Iran? Never mind, it’s the !% war against the rest of us, including our Earth Mother.


  8. Mr. Ben Irwin, If Ramsey did a random sampling of 361 homeless people then he can be 6.79 percent confident based on 2012 US population. Stats calculators are easy to find but not as dramatic as a plea to emotion.


  9. This is a joke, right? Your “article” includes absolutely no data or evidence to support your claims – unless you consider rhetorical questions (“do we really believe?”) to be data. You suggest that slavery and the displacement of Native Americans is responsible for their present day poverty problems. We have a black president, we have countless successful black Americans and countless successful Americans of all races. We also have a black population with an out of wedlock birth rate of 73% and a black culture that lacks a focus on education and family structure. This is the root cause of the poverty and crime problems within the black community. I’m sorry, but the race card is getting really old. If one get decent grades in high school and pursues some type of higher education, they are not going to live in poverty. Student loans are available to everyone, regardless of race. There is nothing stopping a black person or someone of Native American descent from finishing high school and pursuing some type of higher education and consequently earning enough income to stay out of poverty.

    Haskins and Sawhill of the Brookings Institute did a study that concluded if anyone in America follows these 4 rules: graduate from high school, have a full-time job, wait until you’re 21/married to have children – then in 2007 you had a 2% chance to end up in poverty, whereas over 75% of people who followed none of those rules ended up in poverty over the same year.

    Some of the other comments mention people’s parents helping them out financially. Yeah, do you know why their parents were able to do that? Because their parents didn’t drop out of high school, or become overburdened with a child at age 16. Their parents worked hard and now have the financial means to assist their children if they need help. It’s hilarious that people could actually pass that off as some sort of magical money supply that comes from privilege and not from hard work and wise decisions.


  10. I’m still trying to figure out where I went wrong. I had a good family, a good education with good grades, good jobs and good pay. I worked as hard and as well as I could, often to the exclusion of other things in my life.

    But I’m poor, at least money wise. Some of the problem was and still is poor money management. That one is on my back. I admit it.

    But there was something else in the mix. I call them crazy managers. I know what I can and cannot do. I know what I should be doing. I’m as careful as possible doing it. But these people don’t believe that, care about it, let alone think about it.

    At least now, ‘What I am is enough.” and that is better than how many others made me think I was before the rug was pulled out from under my feet.

    I may have a mental health issue, but I know it, I admit it and I got treatment for it.
    And they call ME crazy. Wrong..


  11. M Stevens:

    “Have a full time job.” And you don’t see the problem with your logic? Jobs are something that must be gotten. They’re not guaranteed in our society. (In our society, it’s guaranteed that some people will not have jobs, actually.)

    ” If one get decent grades in high school and pursues some type of higher education, they are not going to live in poverty. Student loans are available to everyone, regardless of race.”

    1) High schools diplomas don’t guarantee any type of work though they certainly qualify you for part-time positions in food service or at Walmart.
    2) Pursuing higher education is meaningless. Putting “currently enrolled in community college classes” on your resume won’t get you a job. You need to actually earn a degree first, the cost of which is beyond the means of probably a majority of Americans. Speaking of…
    3) Student loans are a form of debt, not guaranteed income. You imply that they ensure the loanee won’t live in poverty. The opposite is true. Student loans guarantee that the loanee will live in debt since a typical 2-year or 4-year degree will not pay for itself in the current job market. This is, in part, because the cost of education has outstripped inflation for decades now. I suspect your beliefs are based on your own experiences from many years ago.

    “Some of the other comments mention people’s parents helping them out financially. Yeah, do you know why their parents were able to do that?…It’s hilarious that people could actually pass that off as some sort of magical money supply that comes from privilege and not from hard work and wise decisions”

    But supposing a person’s parents were not able to help them this way…is that the person’s own fault? Are you really proposing to blame and punish children for mistakes made by their parents?

    I’ll never understand why people not only refuse to try to understand the world from the perspective of other people but actively try to avoid doing so. You’re a fascinating study in motivated belief and delusion, M Stevens.


  12. Thanks for writing this, Ben. It’s a super solid response to Ramsey’s 20 points. I would like to push you on some things, though.

    “The first step in tackling poverty is to be honest with ourselves about the causes and contributing factors.”

    Totally with you.

    “We cannot help someone until we dismantle the stereotypes that prevent us from seeing and understanding them properly.”

    Understanding contributing factors ≠ dismantling stereotypes—they’re more like mile markers on the same path. You can hit the first one and completely miss the next one. I actually think the way we treat poverty in the developing world is a cautionary tale against simply taking that first step (or appearing to) and not taking any other super important steps thereafter.

    “And so we tell ourselves (and our impoverished neighbors): if you are poor and you live in America, it’s your own fault.”

    I think that’s true indictment. The corollary to that is us telling ourselves if you are poor and live in the developing world, it’s not your own fault. I think that’s also true. But I tend to think that has a lot more to do with paternalism/western exceptionalism than any real desire for justice. To be clear: acknowledging structural inequalities that affect/create a people doesn’t necessarily mean you break free from prejudices you have about them. That’s why re: impoverished people in the developing world you get: The colonialism! The warfare! The corruption! Let’s show these poor people how to be more like us!

    Paternalism masquerades as progressive thought quite easily. The American equivalent of this would perhaps be a food focused organization that aims to make “them” eat more like “us” as opposed to trying to make the whole spectrum of food options available to everyone. This sort of thinking usually has good intentions and, in practice, could probably yield some good outcomes, but it’s primarily self-serving and only gets it half right at best. There’s something dangerous that happens when you never get around to the dismantling stereotypes step. Namely:

    A. It’s not their fault (they just need us to show the the way)
    B. It is their fault (now they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps)

    I think we’d agree that B is the worst. Also, wrong. You seem to suggest that our understanding of domestic poverty should look more like our understanding of developing world poverty, though. But our general understanding of developing world poverty is overwhelmingly A. Even at A’s worst (#Kony2012 Savior Complexes and all of these: http://matadornetwork.com/change/7-worst-international-aid-ideas/), it can sound like a really good idea. We know that it’s not, though. So, when people ask where the hope is…I think it’s actually most abundant, most productive when we start thinking of poverty as a collective problem that we work together to fight.


    1. Such a good reminder, Maryam. Thank you. You’re right that both A and B can lead to a paternalistic approach in which we treat the poor as hapless victims who can’t do anything right for themselves. I see your point: acknowledging structural inequalities does not, in itself, do away with the prejudices we have.

      After reading your comment, I would say our understanding of domestic poverty should look more like our understanding of developing world poverty in that we acknowledge the structural/systemic factors causing both. Beyond that, our understanding of poverty in both contexts needs to change. We need to acknowledge that many of our solutions to both domestic and developing world poverty leave much to be desired — especially when we try to make the poor be more like “us” or when we approach them as victims rather than equal partners.

      This is not an easy shift to make. Personally, I’m grateful to you for reminding me of the importance of making it anyway.


  13. “The Bible gets reimagined as a roadmap to prosperity, instead of a roadmap to the cross.” Wow…those are powerful words laced with truth. Thanks for this post; very insightful!


  14. Hi Ben,

    I’m a little late to the party (considering you wrote this almost 10 years ago!) but I just found your blog as I was doing some research into tangible, practical suggestions to give to people who want to work their way out of poverty. I will look around your website some more to see what suggestions you have in this regard.

    In the meantime, what are the first steps you would recommend to somebody who is living in poverty and wants to get out of it? I know there are no instant solutions (and even winning a lottery jackpot isn’t a guarantee since you have to learn how to handle money once you get it), but what are the things you’d recommend that would have the strongest impact in the least amount of time?

    Thanks, I appreciate your input.


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