Your newest fraudulent poverty crusader is the Tea Party’s Mike Lee

Tea Party senator will help the poor by drastically reducing their benefits while lecturing them about the market

Topics: Mike Lee, Poverty, Republican Party, Welfare reform, Editor's Picks, U.S. Senate, GOP, The Right,

Your newest fraudulent poverty crusader is the Tea Party's Mike LeeMike Lee (Credit: AP/Justin Hayworth)

Have you heard about the hot new trend that is sweeping the Republican Party? No, not “endorsing a celebrity’s confused defense of Jim Crow,” I am talking about “caring about poverty.” Marco Rubio cares. Paul Ryan cares. Rand Paul cares. Even Eric Cantor cares. Now, it can be revealed that Sen. Mike Lee also secretly cares very deeply about the plight of the poor.

“Tackling poverty may seem a counterintuitive agenda for one of the most conservative figures in Congress,” the Guardian says, but we have seen many examples over the last few months of how easily a far-right figure can earn positive press simply by stating that it is bad that some people are very poor and that something should be done about that. (Though to be fair to the press, it is actually pretty unusual to hear any politician admit that many Americans are very poor, and the last prominent politician to campaign on a platform of doing something about it turned out to be a toxic narcissist.)

Lee, best known for being a less telegenic Ted Cruz, declared a “war on poverty” last November. Unlike the prior War on Poverty, which was made up of various policies designed to alleviate poverty (and which was much more successful than its critics have claimed), Lee’s war on poverty is mainly about making the rhetorical case that government causes poverty and that eliminating welfare benefits for the poor will somehow spur “market forces” to solve the problem.

Here are Lee’s policy proposals, as described by the Guardian:

  • “[A] bill, introduced last week, that would restore a work requirement for recipients of food stamps….”
  • “capping means-tested welfare spending at 2007 levels”

Capping spending on benefits at 2007 levels — that is, capping them where they were just before the devastating economic crisis and subsequent worldwide recession — seems, like so much of the modern GOP “anti-poverty” platform, to be more of a cruel joke than a serious suggestion. The right now rejects the idea that spending on benefits ought to increase when need increases, in favor of believing, because they really want to believe, that need increases because spending increases. Keep in mind too that “means-tested welfare spending” includes a wide array of programs beyond TANF and SNAP — scroll down to Sec. 301 here — and capping spending at 2007 levels would effectively reverse the ACA Medicaid expansion.

(The Guardian, to its credit and unlike certain American press outlets reporting on GOP poverty crusading, does quote experts explaining how Lee’s ideas will not actually help any poor people.)

At least Marco Rubio suggested a program that might actually alleviate poverty. (Though in order for it to do so, it would have to spend money. And that is why Marco Rubio is a huge failure at being a modern conservative superstar.) The Pauls and Lees simply argue that their goal of completely dismantling the welfare state is in fact an anti-poverty platform, because the government giving poor people money and vouchers is the only thing standing in the way of the poor lifting themselves from poverty with the assistance of the benevolent market.

When a Republican announces his war on poverty, impoverished people should understand that they are the ones the war is against.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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