Thank you to the Sutherland Institute for hosting this event. I am grateful for all you do to stand firmly and faithfully on the front lines of the fight for human dignity, economic opportunity, and social solidarity.
It is of course a tragedy that we have to be here at all. Though the Bible says the poor will always be with us, it can still be hard to accept that fact in a nation with a $15 trillion economy.
And yet, more than 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson’s famous “War on Poverty” speech, we all know the statistics.
Despite trillions of taxpayer dollars spent to eradicate poverty since the late 1960s, the poverty rate across the country has hardly budged. And nearly every strategy we have employed in this “war” – dealing with everything from health care to criminal justice – has failed to achieve genuine change in our most vulnerable communities.
In that same time, participation in civil society, marriage, and religion have deteriorated in poor neighborhoods – compounding economic hardship with social isolation.
All of this might lead some to the depressing conclusion that America’s war on poverty has failed. But the evidence proves nothing of the sort.
On the contrary, I believe the American people are poised to launch a new, bold, and heroic offensive in the war on poverty… if conservatives summon the courage to lead it.
First, let’s be clear about one thing.
The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence and affirmed the equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
For more than two hundred years, the United States –through good times and bad – has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world.
From our very Founding, the tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our free-enterprise economy and voluntary civil society.
We usually refer to the free market and civil society as “institutions.” But really, they are networks – networks of people and information and opportunity.
What makes these networks uniquely powerful is that they impel everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth - to depend not simply on themselves or the government, but on each other. In a free market economy and voluntary civil society, no matter your career or your cause, your success depends on your service.
For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.
Together, America’s free-enterprise economy and voluntary civil society enabled millions of ordinary Americans to protect themselves – and each other – from material want and social isolation … long before Lyndon Johnson tried to do better by growing and centralizing government authority.
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. But what we all should want – and what I certainly do want – is not to destroy the safety net, but to make it work.
This is an important point for us to remember: the constitutionally limited but indispensable role that government played in America’s original war on poverty. That role was best expressed by a president who understood poverty better than most.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln told Congress that the “leading object” of American government was:
“to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
In a single sentence, Lincoln explains precisely what poverty is, and what government ought to do about it.
As Lincoln knew first hand, true poverty was, for most people, not an absence of money, but an absence of opportunity – a lack of access to those social and economic networks where human opportunities are created.
Then, as now, people were not isolated because they were poor – they were poor mostly because they were isolated. And however unintended, too many government programs today only exacerbate that isolation.
Networks of opportunity formed within the free market and civil society are not threats that poor families need more protection from. They are blessings that poor families need more access to.
And so, in America’s original war on poverty, government did not give the poor other people’s money. It gave them access to other people.
In Lincoln’s era that meant dredging rivers, building canals, and cutting roads. It meant the Homestead Act and land-grant universities.
These public goods weren’t designed to make poverty more tolerable – but to make it more temporary. They reduced the time it took to get products to market, increased access to banks and land, and increased the speed at which knowledge could be developed and shared.
Poor farmers and trappers in Lincoln’s Mid-West were no worse at their trades than their more affluent counterparts back east. They just didn’t enjoy the same access to networks of human, social, and economic capital.
Likewise, poor children today possess the ability to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century. But what they lack is access to the networks of human opportunity where that knowledge and those skills are acquired.
Properly considered, then, the war on poverty is not so much about lifting people up. It’s about bringing people in.
And so the challenge to us today is to rethink the war on poverty along these lines... to bring into our economy and society the individuals, families, and communities that have for five decades been unfairly locked out.
Nineteen-sixty-four wasn’t the year Americans started fighting poverty; it was the year we started losing that fight. To start winning again, conservatives are going to have to lead the way - by offering not simply criticisms, but alternatives.
Today, too many of those “artificial weights” Lincoln described are themselves government policies. Our federal government has become overwhelmed with outdated institutions and dysfunctional policies making it harder for Americans on the margins to build a good life for themselves and their families.
Our education policies trap poor kids in failing schools, and our broken tax code treats marriage and work as costly burdens rather than essential pathways to personal happiness and prosperity. Meanwhile, we have a health care system that confines the most vulnerable among us to the lowest quality care and criminal justice laws that tear apart families and fracture communities.
A truly comprehensive anti-poverty agenda must address these poverty traps wherever they exist. To make poverty temporary, rather than simply tolerable, such an agenda must not only correct – but transcend – existing policies.
Forging an agenda of practical and effective anti-poverty reforms will require creative thinking, bold leadership, and hard work – inside and outside government. That’s why I’m so grateful the Sutherland Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, with Arthur Brooks at the helm, are leading this effort.
These are two of the most trusted, innovative, and influential research institutions in the country, thanks largely to their work developing a conservative “social justice agenda.”
For both institutions, it’s not just an “anti-poverty” agenda that we need – it’s a “pro-happiness” agenda. They recognize that people living in poverty aren’t data points or statistics – they’re human beings who, like all of us here, want to lead prosperous and satisfying lives.
And while happiness may not mean the same thing for everyone, it always involves some combination of what Arthur calls “institutions of meaning,” which exist in the vital human space between the isolated individual and the oppressive state: faith, family, community, and work.
This is a critical point to remember in our fight against poverty: some of our most important investments will be not in economic capital, but in human and social capital. This begins, of course, with everyone’s primary source of human and social capital: the family.
People of good will can disagree about whether government policy should privilege families, in recognition of their unique role in the pursuit of happiness and justice. But I think everyone should be able to at least agree that government should not unfairly penalize families.
That’s why I’ve introduced a pro-family, pro-growth tax reform plan designed not just to grow the economy, but to increase freedom and opportunity for America’s low-income earners and working families. I’m working on a new version of the plan now with my friend, Senator Marco Rubio.
Alleviating the economic burdens of building a family isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a political issue. That’s because poverty shouldn’t be a political issue… it’s a human issue that each of us, regardless of party affiliation, has a moral obligation to address.
The Sutherland Institute and the American Enterprise Institute understand this, and believe it or not, even some of my colleagues in Congress are starting to catch on. For instance, one of my favorite bills in Congress right now is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which I’m co-sponsoring with two of the most liberal Senators in the country, Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois and Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont.
The three of us don’t always agree on everything, but we came together in the Judiciary Committee to introduce this bill, which would modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses.
The idea behind the bill is simple: for those in our prison system who are not violent and pose no threat to our communities, we have a moral obligation to get them re-integrated into our nation’s networks of social and economic mobility.
Legislative proposals like the Smarter Sentencing Act aren’t, as most people like to say, “bipartisan” – they’re simply common sense. They recognize that reducing poverty isn’t about pouring more money into, or taking more money out of, our dysfunctional government programs. It’s about fixing the underlying system so that every dollar we spend actually connects underprivileged families to new opportunities in the free market and civil society.
Whether it’s empowering lower-income Americans with better health care options, or giving parents the power to choose where they send their children to school, many of our solutions to poverty will follow a similar pattern: we need to replace our unresponsive systems centralized in the Washington bureaucracy with bottom-up solutions that empower the people closest to the problems to find solutions that work best for them.
For this, Utah offers a great model for the rest of the country. All across the state we see real, meaningful change in our communities achieved through a combination of efficient local government, a prosperous economy, an active civil society, and perhaps the most successful private welfare system in the world.
In August, while crisscrossing the state during Congress’s so-called “recess,” I had the privilege of touring the facilities of Switchpoint, an organization that perfectly exemplifies the “Utah model” for fighting poverty.
Located in St. George, Switchpoint provides temporary shelter and support services for the homeless in Washington County. And I can tell you, this was no D.C.-run welfare program: the people at Switchpoint did more than just offer a warm bed and a decent meal – they transformed lives.
And it all happened organically: volunteers brought in non-profits and local government agencies so that Switchpoint residents could easily access the services they needed to get their lives back on track; local business and contractors donated materials and labor for renovations; another group donated computers so that residents can participate in on-line job training programs; religious groups and other charities donated crucial resources; and, perhaps best of all, the bulk of the operations of Switchpoint were carried out by the people staying there.
All of this was living proof of what ordinary people can do – and will do – to help those around them. Even without a bureaucrat in D.C. telling them what to do and how to do it, the people of Washington County came together – as neighbors, business owners, and friends, volunteers and local government officials – to lift up the needy, bring in the marginalized, and restore hope to the most vulnerable.
I want to close with another story from our state – a story that shows the Switchpoint model is really the Utah model in miniature.
In October 1856, two groups of handcart pioneers on their way to Utah were stuck on the plains of Wyoming: short of provisions, with winter coming, the ground so hard they could not dig graves for those who expired in the cold.
In what is now Salt Lake City, Brigham Young stood to open a general conference of the church, where the citizens anxiously waited to hear the inspiring speeches and powerful sermons common to such gatherings.
Instead, he began by reading the report sent to Salt Lake by the leaders of the handcart groups. It told of:
“between five and six hundred men, women, and children, worn by drawing handcarts through the snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold; their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost.”
Brigham Young then called the people to action, with this simple message: “Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts … and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them.”
He said he would not wait until tomorrow or the next day. He called for forty young men, sixty-five teams of mules or horses, and wagons loaded with twenty-four thousand pounds of flour to leave immediately to rescue those pioneers in the wilderness.
“I will tell you all,” Young said, “that your faith… and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you… unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching… Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”
The rescue party quickly assembled and headed East.
Days later, they reached the pioneers – with food and blankets and hope. The survivors were then carried, some literally on the backs of their rescuers, to Salt Lake – home at last, where they belonged.
Today, millions more of our neighbors are still out on the plains. They are not some government’s brothers and sisters – they are ours.
And the time has come to do something about it. As conservatives, as Americans, and as human beings, we have it in our power – individually, together, and where necessary through government… to bring them in:
- to bring them into our free enterprise economy to earn a good living,
- to bring them into our voluntary civil society to build a good life,
- and to welcome them and their children home to an America that leaves no one behind.
Thank you, and God bless.