“Comeback” Documents Real-life Americans Overcoming Adversity

Intellectuals and politicians in Washington frequently argue about income inequality, and the many anti-poverty programs proposed as a remedy. As part of that ongoing conversation, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), and the nonprofit group Opportunity Lives recently hosted a screening of Comeback, a documentary series highlighting the strengths of American citizens who are working to overcome poverty, addiction, and adversity. The inspiring stories of Rev. Omar Jahwar and former Dallas-area gang member Antong G. Lucky depicted in the videos demonstrate that our current government programs often focus on symptoms of social dysfunction and ignore the causes.

Income inequality is a divisive issue, involving deeply-held beliefs about work, responsibility, and solidarity. CEI has argued that inequality per se is actually a distraction from the more important problem of absolute poverty. The recent study People, Not Ratios by Iain Murray and Ryan Young highlights the fact that poor people around the world today are living better than ever before, in large part because of an increasingly free and productive economic system. Finding ways to support economic opportunity is more important than the fact that some people are getting rich faster then others. 

It can be difficult, however, to design a single anti-poverty policy when circumstances and culture vary so much across the country. When I had the chance to speak privately with Lucky and Jahwar, I asked them how existing government interventions were working, and their response was that the real solutions were to be found in each particular community. Private charities operated by people who live and work in the areas they’re serving should be the goal of the anti-poverty movement.

The Rising Tide, a companion study to People, Not Ratios, discusses the problems with many current anti-poverty proposals, including a higher minimum wage. As Murray and Young document, such a policy comes with counterproductive tradeoffs such as layoffs, reduced work hours, fewer non-wage perks, and reduced purchasing power.

As Speaker Ryan said in an interview last year, the challenge of empowerment raised by the Comeback series “isn’t about government or polices or bills or laws. This is about the fact that we need to revitalize our communities. We need to revitalize civil society.” The efforts of Opportunity Lives show that private initiatives can do this job better than government bureaucracies, and that we should be looking to local leaders across the country in helping those who need a hand up.