WASHINGTON – President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," nearing its 50th anniversary, has been a failure, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) declared Wednesday, as he called on his fellow conservatives to take the lead in the fight against poverty at an invitation-only event hosted by The Heritage Foundation.
1964 was not the year America began fighting the War on Poverty, Lee argued, it was 1776.
"Upward mobility," he said, "has never been easy. It has always and everywhere required backbreaking work, personal discipline, and at least a little luck. But if upward mobility was not universal in America, it was the norm. From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty - we were winning."
In America's first 200 years, Lee added, poverty was fought with the "twin pillars of American exceptionalism" – free enterprise economics and a voluntary civil society.
Lee was speaking at the Antipoverty Forum hosted by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chair of the Budget Committee and 2012 vice presidential candidate, was also at the event. Other panels at the event dealt with the topics of prison reform and how to communicate a conservative anti-poverty agenda to religious audiences.
While many politicians, from both the left and right, extol the virtues of individualism, Lee's remarks contained a more communitarian focus.
"In a free market economy and voluntary civil society," he said, "no matter your career or your cause, your success depends on your service. The only way to get ahead is to help others do the same. The only way to look out for yourself is to look out for your neighbors. Together, these twin networks of service-based success enabled millions of ordinary Americans to make our economy very wealthy and our society truly rich."
Later in the speech he added that "what makes America exceptional, and life worth living, is not simply individual freedom, but the heroic, empowering communities that free individuals form."
Lee contrasted this view with libertarian Ayn Rand, whose philosophy focuses on individualism.
"The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel," he said, "It's a Norman Rockwell painting."
A conservative anti-poverty program, Lee believes, would "not give the poor other people's money," but would give "them access to other people," or "access to networks of human, social and economic capital."
Some of the policy changes Lee mentioned included removing marriage penalties in government, allowing low-income parents to move their kids out of failing schools, work requirements for means-tested programs, block granting some federal programs, and reforming sentencing guidelines that send too many non-violent offenders to prison.
You can read the whole speech on Mike Lee's website.