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The nation is poised to embark on a new "heroic" war on poverty, said Sen. Mike Lee, but one that rejects government welfare programs in exchange for attacking poverty traps.
Lee outlined his conservative vision in an address in Salt Lake City on Wednesday sponsored by the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based think tank, and in the process criticized the war on poverty launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
"Defenders of today's status quo say that any critique of our welfare system is really just a thinly-veiled attempt to destroy the social safety net," said Lee, R-Utah. "But what we all should want and what I certainly do want is not to destroy the safety net, but rather to make it work."
He said that would take a host of changes, from allowing parents to pick the schools their children go to whether public or private to reducing prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. He said he's working with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on a tax plan that would boost the child-tax credit and revamp the corporate tax.
Lee, a tea-party favorite, criticizes the federal government for creating programs that haven't helped people out of poverty, and he believes that solutions on a state or even city level would be more effective.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, also addressed the crowd of a little more than 100 who crammed into a restaurant in Salt Lake City to discuss conservative takes on combating poverty. An economist by trade, Brooks said the people in the top half of the economy are experiencing a robust economic recovery, while those at the bottom have seen no improvement.
"This is the moral imperative of our time," he said.
Brooks said it is a conservative fallacy that nobody needs welfare, but welfare must be more targeted and smarter and it should be combined with a drive toward entrepreneurship among low-income Americans. He also said conservatives should engage in this fight even if poor Americans are more likely to support Democrats, arguing that "leaders and patriots fight not for people who support them, they fight for people who need them."
Lee along with the AEI has advocated that a more positive presentation of these Republican ideals is needed to show voters that the GOP has a plan if it assumes power. It's possible that the Republicans will win control of the Senate in November. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has come up with his own anti-poverty plan that pushes federal funding to states.
Lee cited the way Mormon pioneers helped each other as they migrated to Salt Lake City, as an example of a community that took care of itself and didn't rely on government.
"Today, millions more of our neighbors are still out on the plains," he said. "They are not some government's brothers and sisters they are ours. And the time has come for us to do something about it."