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.