How This Dark Money Group Peddles a Right-Wing ‘Paid Leave’ Program

Despite using slogans like "all issues are women’s issues," the Independent Women's Forum undermines policies that would benefit parents and caregivers.

Illustration of WASP family being
A genuine comprehensive paid family and medical leave policy would help close the gender wage gap—and is popular across the political spectrum. Unsplash/Rewire News Group illustration

Paid leave has become even more of a necessity during the ongoing pandemic, and as such, its absence has been glaring.

A genuine comprehensive paid family and medical leave (PFML) policy would help close the gender wage gap, bolster families’ retirement savings, and equalize caregiving responsibilities in two-parent heterosexual relationships. It’s also popular across the political spectrum. So why doesn’t it exist in the United States?

As mothers of toddlers, we have juggled caring for our children, working outside the home, and managing the household labor that has grown more onerous with our families working or learning at home.

Statistics back our lived experience: Almost half of mothers with full-time compensated employment reported taking unpaid sick leave because of school or day care closures. Plus, 10 percent of women (and higher percentages of Black, Hispanic, and Asian women) reported new caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic.

As researchers who track the influence of dark money and special interests in politics, we have observed how dark-money women’s groups, like the Independent Women’s Forum, actively undermine policies that would benefit us and other parents and caregivers.

IWF, a 501(c)(3) right-wing pay-to-play group, and Independent Women’s Voice, its 501(c)(4) advocacy arm, have received funding from corporations and industries like tobacco to parrot their talking points in the media without disclosing their financial relationship. They have also received vast sums from the networks of far-right billionaire Charles Koch, who has opposed social programs for decades, and the right-wing lawyer Leonard Leo, who openly seeks to roll back our rights to the pre-New Deal era by capturing the courts.

While opposing comprehensive paid family and medical leave, IWF debuted its skeletal Earned Leave” idea in 2018. This scheme, in effect, would punish parents who draw from their Social Security to take time to care for their newborn or newly adopted children by forcing them to retire later or take a lifelong cut to their retirement benefits, unless they pay back the loan sooner. (By contrast, the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro is not a loan, applies beyond the nuclear family, and provides medical leave.)

IWF’s bill seemingly serves three objectives of IWF and its ultra wealthy donors:

  • It counters a comprehensive paid leave program.
  • It promotes the privatization of Social Security.
  • In the post-Roe world, IWF’s scheme helps the GOP blunt charges of hypocrisy for claiming to be “pro-family” while failing to materially address the needs of children and families, for instance by opposing federal health care and PFML programs, more robust public school funding, pre-K and childcare assistance, and more.

IWF uses slogans like “all issues are women’s issues” and advancing “people’s freedom, opportunity, and well being.” Yet, the group repeatedly attacks the kinds of policies that encourage the true freedoms and choices for women—from day care to retirement—that would secure women’s economic stability. It has opposed paid family leave, subsidies for child care, the Equal Pay Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, and more.

By positioning themselves as women and mothers without disclosing their day jobs fighting pro-woman policies in recent media appearances, IWF staffers lend legitimacy to their anti-feminist policy positions. Their concern for “family,” though, is narrow: It’s restricted implicitly to the heterosexual nuclear family, a gimmick that has recently helped the right-wing broadly—and specifically IWF—paint inclusive and research-based education as (anti-white) racism and “grooming.”

Ties to right-wing dark money

IWF’s paid leave scheme is another example of the group’s destructive pay-to-play antifeminism. The program is likely to particularly harm women given the existence of a gender wage gap that IWF has long denied and that is most profound for Latina, Black, and Indigenous women. A large portion of people in the United States, especially women and Black and Latinx retirees, already struggle to make ends meet during retirement, meaning they are also more likely to require the elder care provisions and medical leave left out of IWF’s plan.

IWF’s proposal would, however, offer benefits to one of its funders. It would advance Charles Koch’s long-term goal of weakening and privatizing Social Security. Notably, IWF Director Carrie Lukas began her career working at Koch’s Cato Institute, which has been devoted to his agenda to privatize Social Security since it was launched in the 1970s. She argued that IWF’s bill would open the door to borrowing from Social Security and other “entitlement” programs.

IWF has also worked in tandem with other Koch-funded organizations, like the American Enterprise Institute, to spread IWF’s messaging against paid leave. For example, according to Truth North Research, the democracy watchdog group where we both work, Hadley Heath Manning, IWF’s vice president for policy, spoke at a paid leave workshop of the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing bill mill where corporate lobbyists and special interest groups “vote as equals with state legislators on model bills.”

The group has continued opposing PFML during the COVID-19 pandemic, including by pushing a pandemic-specific paid leave “policy focus” claiming that PFML would not help curb the pandemic, despite peer-reviewed research finding that access to paid sick leave in the United States reduced flu-like infectious disease rates by at least 10 percent.

IWF’s plan has had far reach, coming to form the basis of the “New Parents Act” by Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio and the “CRADLE Act” by Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Mike Lee. These bills seem to have stalled, but they may soon be resuscitated.

With the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the GOP’s hypocrisy is on full display. The party must now square its “pro-family” branding—which includes forcing individuals to give birth against their will in the name of being “pro-life”—with its opposition to popular social programs, like comprehensive paid leave, that would benefit most families.

Seemingly by design, IWF’s “earned leave” plan complements the GOP’s abortion restrictions as part of a larger effort to address declining domestic birthrates, a potential boon for the economy that doubtlessly concerns IWF’s benefactors. IWF’s director for its Center for Economic Opportunity, Patrice Onwuka, lamented in 2019 that declining birth rates might harm the economy due to fewer workers and less familial consumption.

That same year on a CPAC panel on paid leave, former Sen. Rick Santorum argued that criminalizing abortion was “step one” to dealing with declining (white) birthrates. He laid out “step two,” as providing leave to care for newborns, specifically pushing IWF’s Social Security-based scheme. (Santorum referenced wanting to address the challenges of raising children for households that became dual income “in the last 50 years,” which is when married white women began entering the workforce in large numbers. Black women, for instance, have constituted a significant part of the U.S. formal, paid workforce since the end of slavery.)

Santorum’s organization, Patriot Voices, appears to lead the right-wing paid leave coalition that promotes IWF’s plan and claims to have regularly met with Ivanka Trump’s team. That “paid leave” coalition is a “who’s who” of Christian right dark money groups, many of which are in Leonard Leo’s orbit, like Students for Life, the Ethics and Public Policy Center (whose senior fellow promoted conspiracy theories supporting Kavanaugh in his confirmation), and IWF.

Since 2014, IWF and IWV have received more than $5 million from Leo’s web of dark money groups set on capturing the Supreme Court to reverse Roe and a century of legal precedents to the liking of Leo and his secret funders. Leo also hand-selected three of the justices (Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch) for the lifetime appointment on the bench.

IWF and abortion

IWF claims not to take a position on abortion, and yet they ran robocalls in support of right-wing candidates seeking to ban abortion access for women who have been raped. Additionally, IWF’s legal fellow Erin Hawley, wife of Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, has repeatedly attacked Roe. She also works for Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center; it coordinated the amicus briefs in support of the case that dismantled Roe. Hawley even gave his wife credit for writing the briefs.

After receiving Leo funding, IWF helped support the packing of the Supreme Court by promoting Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett during their confirmation hearings, including giving messaging guidance to Sen. Susan Collins to justify her vote to confirm Kavanaugh, despite Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s compelling testimony under oath that he tried to rape her, which Kavanaugh denied.

IWF used the news that broke in May of Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft decision to promote its paid leave “alternative.” And since the official decision overturning Roe was less than two weeks ago, representatives from dark money anti-abortion groups like Ethics and Public Policy Center, March for Life, and Conservative Partnership Institute have demanded that the right-wing do more to “support” new parents post-Roe. Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, the dark money figure credited with manufacturing the outrage against supposed critical race theory in schools, even promoted Rubio’s “paid leave” bill on Twitter, provoking IWF’s Inez Stepman to seek credit for her organization’s role in underwriting it.

The political influence of IWF and its donors is seemingly not limited to heading off progressive policies that can help most women. Their goals appear to be much bigger. As part of a right-wing network funded by anonymous corporations and billionaires, such groups are set on altering U.S. legal policies in ways that would turn back the clock on women’s rights and the rights of all Americans.

In the fight for reproductive justice, shining a light on those responsible for attacking our rights helps hold them accountable.

The right wing has captured the Supreme Court. If we have any hope of once again guaranteeing reproductive rights in this country, we need to capture our collective righteous anger and direct it toward fighting for policies that actually support families, including our ability to choose when and if to have one.