Progressives sometimes accuse conservatives of not caring about the poor. But it’s liberal policies that deepen, prolong, and institutionalize poverty.

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) made this important clarification at a Heritage Foundation forum on Capitol Hill today when he said, “1964 wasn’t the year Americans started fighting poverty; it was the year we started losing that fight.”

Lee went on to lay out the case that America from its birth built the best poverty-reduction machine ever created—which is why this country has attracted millions of immigrants from around the world.

“For more than 200 years, the United States—through trial and error, through good times and bad—has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world,” he said.

Then Lee explained how Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty—which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, if that is the correct term—has only made poverty worse:

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.

Today, a boy born in the bottom 20% of our income scale has a 42% chance of staying there as an adult. According to the O.E.C.D. [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], the United States is third from the bottom of advanced countries in terms of upward economic mobility.

A recent study in Oregon found that the Medicaid program – which provides health insurance to the poor – produces basically no health improvements for its beneficiaries. A study last December on the Head Start program, issued by the Obama Administration itself, found that what few academic benefits three- and four-year olds do gain from the program all but disappear by end of the first grade.

Then Lee ripped into President Obama’s ethos of tackling big problems such as poverty only under the leadership of government. For example, when Obama says, “Now, more than ever, we must do things together, as one nation and one people”—by “together,” Lee explained, the President means only “government.”

This discredited mindset—which insists collective action can only mean state action—is itself a kind of poverty. It rejects social solidarity in favor of political coercion, and voluntary communities for professional community organizers. It distrusts and denies the bonds of cooperation and service that represent the highest expression of our dignity.

Conservatives, said the Senator, must take the lead and show ways government can remove barriers to success for Americans.

The challenge to conservatives 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.

You can read the whole speech here.