This week, Dave Ramsey came under fire for this blog post. In it he quoted some statistics that showed differing actions that those deemed poor and those deemed rich take. Needless to say the internets was not amused. Dave quickly became the number one thing for net hate on this week of thanksgiving. You might say the only people thankful for Dave this week were Comcast, AT&T, and other internet purveyors (and perhaps the advertisers for his site). Dave responded in a less than gracious manner, and now the comments have closed and everyone there may well be waiting for Miley to do something stupid so the internets can move on.
Now I don’t really have 20 reasons; but here are a few things that need to be said. And many have already been said better, but hey, I’m a teacher, that’s what I do. I use life moments to drop knowledge ya’ll (or mansplain- sometimes the difference is razor thin).
1) I wouldn’t call bunk on the stats, just yet. First, the Freakonomics boys actually said something similar in their last book. They showed that the highest correlation for high academic performance was the number if books in a home. It is a no-brainer really; access to more and varied books allows for a more well rounded mind. More exposure to books would; then it seem allow for higher education and higher ed correlations well with higher income. In a sense many of the stats fall around this same line of common sense thinking.
I think this explains some of Ramsey’s response. What he is seeing is people disagreeing with his stats, but this view of what has happened to Ramsey is shortsighted and way too reductive and literal a understanding of the issue; because…
2) As one of my Journalism professors used to preach on an almost daily basis… correlation is not causation. The example he used is this. Here are two stats from the 19th Century: 1) the number of people in the U.S. drinking alcohol doubled; and 2) the number of people who attended church rose by similar margins. Now here is the thesis to discuss: does church going lead to alcohol? Serious disagreements might be had; but here’s the thing, the numbers can be explained another way: the population of the U.S. more than doubled as well. This means that there were more people; hence any aggregate numbers for both habits would likely see a rise irregardless of each other.
Anyone serious about this topic would have to factor this into the discussion of stats. Here Ramsey hurt himself. Had he hedged his bets and placed a proviso before the numbers (such as “hey, this probably doesn’t mean as much as we think, but aren’t these numbers interesting…”); then a different type and content of discussion might have been successfully attained. But instead he went with a title and lead designed to go viral in our self help / fear of failure environment. The post was designed to hook you in because of your concern for not being a loser.
Just like those nightly news leads that promise you need to watch tonight’s broadcast so that you know what paint is killing your kid (RIGHT F+?>&^%G NOW AS YOU ARE WATCHING REAL HOUSEWIVES, YOUR KIDS ARE DYING, RIGHT NOW. SERIOUSLY, YOU ARE A KIDKILLER IF YOU DO NOT STAY AWAKE FOR THE NEWS.), I saw the link hit my social media really quickly and skipped right on past; because I thought there’s another post designed to tell me what I am doing wrong using dubious science. The posts are so regular on social media that I did not even consider it until I saw multiple people I follow on twitter began to get snippy about it.
I think this design accounts for much of the response to the post; the overly literal and reductionist use of the stats seemed to create a kind of straw-man argument creating a false conclusion that…
3) In America we have long created a false dichotomy. Rich people are rich because they are smart, hard-working, and conscientious. Poor people are poor because they are lazy, have poor work habits, and selfish. Yet, if this true how do we explain Paris Hilton? How do we explain the selfish, entitled, brats that I am sure many of us can think of now. Seriously take a moment, how long do you have to think back in your life to consider a meeting with someone who was lazy, selfish, loutish, and rich. If you include TV watching (seriously Cierra on Survivor is killing me… how can the tribe not see what a selfish brat she is), I can say an hour. If you want to go real-life; then six hours (why yes, I am thinking of the girl who, just today, I witnessed ask a cashier if she really had to wait in line with everyone else- the holidays you got to love ’em). Now do the converse; when was the last time you saw someone not considered wealthy act in a strong, moral manner? I, do live in the rich part of town and have mostly well-off friends; but even I can point to countless examples of moral, amazing people who make less than desirable wages). Just in the last week I thank of the Wal-mart workers in Ohio taking up a collection for people in their store who were not going to be able to have a Thanksgiving meal this week. In this humble story you see poor working class people being more Christian and moral; than their rich overlords.
Now I know that many are going to respond that they know many people who met both cliches; and Dave Ramsey pointed to himself and his wife as exhibit a for why his post was true (as did many in the comments section). Yet just as no one of my previous examples proves that Ramsey’s stats are wrong; none of the commentators (or Ramsey’s) stories prove they are right. Going back to the discussion of correlation; one could argue that…
4) A year or so ago Rolling Stone magazine ran a story about one of my favorite TV programs, The Wire. At that point the show had been off air for almost 5 years (I think); and the article was not simply a nostalgia piece. It was in response to a recent court case. One of the principal actors on the show had recently been sent to prison for living a life similar to that of the character she had portrayed on the show. At the time of the show she had been a great story for the show: rough and tumble Baltimore project resident makes good in Hollywood bringing authenticity to a show about life in the projects of Baltimore. Yet here she was falling victim to many of the same bad habits exhibited by her drug-dealing character. When asked for a comment the show’s writer David Simon pointed to a recent study of these same projects.
The study referred to this area of Baltimore (and other studied neighborhoods in D.C., NYC, and Chicago) as black holes of poverty. The gravity of these areas worked in such a way as to collapse in on its residents. It is, the article argued, almost impossible for people to free themselves from these areas.
Support for this theory has gotten support from an unusual place: the NBA. It has long been the story that the NBA is full of poor kids who have pulled themselves out of poverty by leveraging their athletic abilities. It is a story that keeps kids playing at playgrounds across the country. And with its collection of heavily tattooed black men, the NBA would seem the poster league for this kind of Alger Hiss Sports story. Yet recent analysis has called this rags to riches story as bogus as the ones Hiss peddled. In fact the overwhelming number of black men in the NBA come from middle class families. The authors of the story pointed to time, money, as well as behavioral differences as being the deciding factors which doom the poor to a lifetime remembering high school stardom (as opposed to living college and pro dreams) [editors note: you can find the link in my twitter feed].
Poverty and wealth are not just descriptors of one’s bank account. They can often be a mindset in and of itself. Chalk one up for irony because in a post arguing this very point, Ramsey did not take his own argument to its fullest definition.
For one thing when one’s survival is on the line, and subsistence living is the norm, there is little time for anything beyond surviving. For another children who grow up in these conditions show many of the same long term difficulties and psychological problems as abuse survivors and war veterans (in terms of a PTSD effects and atrocious coping strategies). The stress and lack that fills their loves actually works to inhibit their ability to grow, mature, and develop the kind of life skills needed to get a college degree or hold down a good job.
This lack of the time to read, the money to buy non-essentials like books, and the safe space to develop good habits may have more to do with Ramsey’s statistics than any overt literal reduction of the stats would lead one to assume. What we are looking at is a complicated multi-layered problem needing a variety of solutions and not one that can be solved by creating and maintaining a checklist (which BTdubs the kist argues poor people can’t get right anyway).
And this is the problem for many with Ramsey’s post and the attitude with which he responded to the criticism of his post. Rather than being an ‘of course’ moment, of the face palm variety the post highlighted a set of assumptions all too common and which cause many of us to have a different kind of face palm moment.
At best the post showed a lack of understanding both the many benefits and blessings in Ramsey’s life as well as a lack of empathy for the challenges involved in being born to a poor family. At it’s best the post showed a remarkable lack of the kind of complex thinking which Ramsey seemed to be calling (irony, thou are a cruel witch).
At worst the post represented another moment when potentially well-meaning Christians went the full Ayn Rand. At its worse the post showed a faulty belief that morality plays a role in wealth production (or the converse).
And this is the problem for me about the post (that was only exacerbated by the follow-up). While he may have gotten the stats right, he got the Bible message wrong. Yes, many places in the Bible show the faulty habits of the poor, but there are quite a bit more that call those who have created good habits to help those who have not. As Christians the point in pointing out bad habits is not to point out another’s wrongness [think the mote passage or the meat sacrificed to idols passage]. The point is to encourage one another, to emphasize with one’s another’s struggles, and to seek to improve each other’s lives.
When I read the list (at long last), my thought was not:
“man, I’m glad I’ve currently reading a nonfiction book.”
“dude, you’re telling me that we could really improve the lives of some people by giving them books, that is an idea I could get behind.”
This is the missed opportunity of the post (and all too often the missed opportunity of much Evangelical talk about poverty and wealth). We took some stats and created another checklist for personal growth; when perhaps Christ would have used the stats as a call to serve the poor.
Yet from his response to the contretemps; it is obvious that this thought process never crossed Team Ramsey’s mind. It is also that Ramsey is not the discussion kind of guy. He pontificates and the wise listen. The morons of the world raise their hands and ask their moronic questions, the losers probably have no goal other than wasting the time he could have been reading the latest Glenn Beck screen. They are trying to keep him back from wealth, ya’ll.
The major part of this is mission creep. In the first graph Ramsey says, “I’m a teacher, and now let me get my teach on b+*&%s.” The old cliche about hammers and nails seems apropos here. Ramsey sees himself as a teacher showing people the way to economic wholeness. And to him everything looks like a teaching moment. And this is good we need teachers like Ramsey to point out the good advice of scripture and to help people live out this message. But Ramsey does not see himself as an advocate or activist for the poor. And we also really need advocates for the poor (not sideline mockers). And maybe that’s not his thing; and maybe that’s OK; but as Paul says the hand should not say to the foot, I have no need of you. And that is what Ramsey seemed to be doing with his response.
My problem is not that Ramsey saw these stats as a teaching moment. It’s that he choose to follow the example of the wrong teacher. He went the full Rand; when I hoped he would have gone the full Christ. And that is a shame. I can only hope that those in accountability with Ramsey can use this as a… wait for it… teaching moment.