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Mike Lee’s war against poverty

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) delivered on Wednesday another thoughtful speech, continuing his policy rollout and evolution away from shutdown instigator. The subject this time was a conservative anti-poverty crusade. The speech contained four elements.

First, he critiqued the liberal welfare programs that have thrown billions at the problem of poverty with little to show for it. “Despite trillions of taxpayer dollars spent to eradicate poverty since the late 1960s, the poverty rate has hardly budged. And just last week, the Census Bureau reported that today, more than 49 million Americans still live below the poverty line,” he said. He argued –unlike the stereotypical uber-individualistic conservative — that the key to America has been organic communities operating outside of government. He made the case that rather than giving people access to taxpayer money the real solution to poverty lies in civil institutions and in upward mobility nurtured by free markets:

Look at any thriving marriage, friendship, church, charity, Little League, historical society, theater company, PTA, neighborhood or business. What makes America exceptional — and life worth living — is not simply individual freedom, but the heroic, empowering communities that free individuals form.
Free enterprise and civil society operate in the natural human space — between the isolated individual and the impersonal state — where we live, and love, and flourish . . . where everyone can earn a good living and build a good life . . . where the strong and the vulnerable alike can pursue their happiness, and find it . . . together.

Second, he described what conservative should do to, at the very least, restrain government from causing more harm than good. “Our job is to identify the obstructions that impede Americans’ access to our market economy and civil society and clear them. And if we’re looking for impediments to mobility and opportunity, we’ve certainly come to the right place!” That includes, he said, removing economic penalties on marriage and restrictions on school choice.

Third, he pointed to affirmative steps a conservative anti-poverty agenda should include. Government money must be wisely spent and properly directed to people in need. (“t=There is no good reason federal policy should reward states for higher spending rather than improved results. And so one of our first priorities should be to simply get existing federal programs under control . . . [and] just as we cannot spend our way out of poverty, we cannot really cut our way out, either. We need to fundamentally fix the system so that every dollar we do spend actually connects underprivileged families to new opportunities in the free market and civil society”). His vision also includes: 1) reform and block granting of Medicaid and Head Start to customize benefits for the poor and eliminate bureaucracy; 2) reforms to open up our elementary and secondary schools, giving underprivileged parents and children access to the same opportunities that wealthy Americans take for granted; 3) higher-ed reforms ( “federal aid to follow students to new and diverse options: customized courses, programs, tests, on-line and on-campus, even professional training and apprenticeships”); and 4) reform of criminal justice and the prison “to put ‘rehabilitation’ back into the vocabulary of the federal prison system.”

And fourth, he made the moral case for capitalism and for ridding the system of cronyism that helps the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the poor. (“Reforms to our tax, regulatory, energy and transportation systems that spur private investment and job creation can do more for upward mobility than anything else in government’s power. And certainly more than any of the divisive, special-interest pandering that the Washington establishments of both parties cynically substitute for serious debate and reform.”)

Aside from the nuts and bolts, Lee issued a bracing rebuke to his own party, arguing for less focus on opposing gay marriage and more on strengthening marriage, which leads to better social and economic results for couples and their children. He argued that “both sides of the aisle have employed terms like ‘family values’ and ‘marriage’ primarily as partisan wedges, cudgels to attack ideological opponents. This fact did not create America’s marriage crisis — but it hasn’t helped, either.” This is nothing less than a fundamental shift in the emphasis of social conservatives. (“Even if we remove morality and religion from the question entirely, a stable, intact family remains the greatest incubator of economic opportunity and multiplier of human and social capital in this world.”)

His effort should be applauded, despite some minor quibbles. These are important, although they should not distract from his overall constructive approach.

For starters, he needs to connect the dots, as it were, to the GOP’s unproductive (in my view) emphasis on domestic discretionary spending cuts that disproportionately hurt the poor. We are transferring wealth from the poor to the middle class (via entitlement growth). Doing what he suggests means dropping relatively unhelpful symbolic efforts (a balanced-budget amendment) and shifting to means-testing entitlement programs.

Second, while making the utilitarian case for marriage he nevertheless falls back on a crutch that is likely to inflame rather than inform instead of using phrasing consistent with data and not off-putting to skeptics (“children tend to do best when raised by their married mom and dad” versus “children tend to do best when raised in a two-parent household”). This should not devolve into a nasty battle pitting gay and straight parents against one another.

Third, he entirely ignores immigration, where conservatives have opposed efforts to integrate millions of people living, in some cases for decades, in the United States into the economic and social landscape, thereby encouraging an underground economy. Republicans have made a fetish out of trying to exclude those who came here illegally (even as children) from the very programs Lee suggests for others (e.g. access to higher-ed). It is not humane or consistent with a war on poverty to insist millions either self-deport or live in the shadows; it is a glaring contradiction that an increasingly large segment of evangelical conservatives has repudiated.

On the whole, however, Lee is continuing to move away from his anti-government, snarling colleagues on the right toward a responsible and interesting group of reform-minded conservatives and governors who have been laboring on these issues for years. That is a positive development for him, his party, the conservative movement and the country.