On Tuesday the conservative news site OpportunityLives.com released Comeback, a seven-part documentary about stories of redemption, inspired by Rep. Paul Ryan’s travels to poverty-stricken communities since the 2012 campaign.* When he was running as Mitt Romney’s second, Ryan realized that he didn’t know enough about what was causing poverty and what could be done to help. So he traveled from city to city talking to civil society groups under the guidance and direction of Robert Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. The stories he found of people rebounding from poverty, substance abuse, and homelessness are captured in the new documentary.
The idea was to figure out what works and shine a light on it. Ryan is not the central figure in the stories, but the series itself is part of his theory about repairing troubled communities—leaders need to hold up and celebrate what’s working. It’s not the kind of thing Ryan could talk about or do when he was on a national ticket. In fact, Mitt Romney’s campaign discouraged him from doing so.
Presidential campaigns don’t focus much on the poor. Of course, candidates mention the downtrodden in speeches, but the time and attention they pay to the kinds of programs and places Ryan visited are scant compared with those paid to taxes, education, or foreign policy.
On the eve of the Agriculture Summit held two weeks ago in Iowa, I asked Catholic Charities in Des Moines to show me around.
GOP hopefuls had made a great effort to get to Iowa that weekend, where they would talk about the Renewable Fuel Standard a much-discussed topic. I wanted to reverse that formula and see how little you would have to do to come into contact with those issues that aren’t much discussed.
I spent my afternoon on the east side of Des Moines, a place candidates pass through on their way to the state fair grounds but not a place where candidates stop. I picked Catholic Charities because their mandate is so broad. They help the hungry, homeless families, and refugees—many from countries in the Middle East whose identity the agency strives to protect for security reasons. The first stop was a family center in a converted gas station that sits at the intersection of two bus lines. Five hundred households a day are served rice packets, dry beans, and whatever the donation of the day may be—onions, bananas, or tomatoes. There’s also a clothing pantry for those with job interviews or a child who needs a new winter coat.
The stories echo Ryan’s core message that it’s hard to design a blanket policy when circumstances of need are so different. Grandparents come in for an emergency box because they can’t afford to care for the grandchildren they are now unexpectedly raising on a fixed income. It’s where those who receive Social Security go after cost-of-living adjustments take effect—because when landlords hear about the extra bit of cash, they raise the rent. At the family shelter, where families can stay for a month, you see exactly how the high cost of housing eats up so much of a family’s budget, making it hard for them to get back on their feet.
These are voices and struggles that often get overlooked. Almost every Republican candidate was in town to talk about the Renewable Fuel Standard, trade policy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Some had studied hard, anxious to show Iowa conservatives and Bruce Rastetter, the agricultural entrepreneur hosting the summit, that they understood the issues. Iowa is home to a large share of America’s 2 million farmers. If farms aren't working, John Deere is laying people off. So it makes sense for candidates visiting the state to put effort into talking about the issues farmers face. But there are also close to 50 million poor people in America. No candidate is renting a private plane to spend a day at a summit discussing the kinds of issues Ryan is highlighting in Comeback.
At least not yet. Ryan could change that by hosting a summit on the topics explored in his film. If his goal is to lift up what’s working for all to see, injecting poverty into the presidential conversation would do that. Ryan is a conservative true believer, not a squish, so it wouldn’t be a trap for Republicans. He knows the complexities of presidential politics, so he wouldn’t make the venue difficult for potential candidates (unless they arrived with empty platitudes and nothing to say). The calendar is already filling up with cattle calls in various states, so he’ll have to move fast to get a poverty summit on the schedule. Perhaps, if candidates are booked, he could host it on the east side of Des Moines this summer when every candidate from both parties will be driving through on their way to the state fair.
*Correction, March 17, 2015: This post originally misstated that Paul Ryan released the miniseries Comeback. It was released by OpportunityLives.com. (Return.)