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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Arthur Brooks, president of American Enterprise Institute, is interviewed by Deseret News Editor Paul Edwards in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Brooks is the author of "The Road to Freedom."

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee told a Sutherland Institute audience Wednesday that Americans are ready to launch a new war on poverty, "if conservatives can somehow summon the courage to lead that very fight."

The Utah Republican spoke at a fundraising dinner for the conservative public policy think tank along with Arthur Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute who has written about the morality of free enterprise.

Lee said to the more than 100 people gathered at an upscale restaurant that the nation has been battling poverty since declaring its independence, with a free enterprise economy and a voluntary civil society.

Government's role, he said, was best defined by Abraham Lincoln's understanding that for most people, poverty is "not the absence of money but an absence of opportunity," rather than Lyndon Johnson's 1964 declaration of a war on poverty.

Lee said conservatives need to come up with not just an anti-poverty agenda, but "a pro-happiness agenda, a pro-prosperity agenda, a thriving agenda" to help the poor find faith, family, community and work.

A place to start, Lee said, is for government to agree not to unfairly penalize families. He and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are calling for revisions to the tax code, including augmenting the child tax credit, and other reforms.

Proposed legislation giving judges more discretion in sentencing non-violent drug offenders backed by both Republicans and Democrats is another example of what Lee said is "simply common sense."

Utah offers a model for the nation, Lee said, citing Switchpoint, a new homeless facility in St. George where the community came together "to lift up the needy, bring in the marginalized and restore hope to the most vulnerable."

Brooks, who spoke before Lee, said if the homeless are asked what they need, they tend to sound like Republicans. Their needs, he said, are relief, hope and to be spared "the bigotry of low expectations."

The economist also said those who would help the poor should recognize there is value in all jobs, that a hedge trimmer is as important as a hedge fund manager. "We have to make sure we are not elitists," Brooks said.

He said conservatives have a moral obligation to fight for the people being left behind by government policies. "The fight has to start, and it has to start with us on the right," Brooks said.

Wednesday's event was held to announce the new Sutherland Institute Center for Utah's Economy, created to seek out conservative policies to help the state's poor and middle-class families.

The number of Utahns living in poverty has increased from 170,000 in 2000 to 312,000 in 2012, according to the institute, which labeled low- and middle-income families falling behind financially "both a moral and an economic problem."

The new center is looking to promote economic mobility for the poor and economic security for the middle class through changes to welfare, tax policy, criminal justice, the labor market and other areas.

"Sen. Lee and Arthur Brooks have both spoken and written extensively on these topics, so it was a natural fit to bring them together for this event," said Dave Buer, the institute's director of communications.

Lee has spoken around the country about the need for conservatives to adopt an agenda, often focusing on addressing the economic problems faced by Americans. Last year, he spoke about poverty at the Heritage Foundation.

He told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright earlier Wednesday he has talked with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus about "the need for the Republican Party to unify around a reform agenda."

That agenda should focus "on benefits we can provide to poor and middle-class Americans that have been left behind," Lee said, "so Republicans can be for something and for something good, not just against what the president's doing."

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