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Bills Enabling Child Labor Can Be Traced to This One Conservative Lobbying Group

The Foundation for Government Accountability has backed bills to expand child labor in at least three states.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders waits to deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union address by President Joe Biden on February 7, 2023, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Republicans have been waging a push in recent months to pass bills weakening child labor protections. But even though these bills are being pushed across several states, a new investigation finds that a right-wing, Florida-based think tank is behind a large number of them — and that the think tank, in some cases, outright wrote the bills.

According to The Washington Post, the Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, are behind pushes for child labor bills introduced by Republicans in Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri.

The Republican sponsor of an Arkansas bill, now signed into law by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that the legislation “came to me from the Foundation [for] Government Accountability.” The law eliminates the requirement for children under 16 to show documentation of their age before being able to work, making it easier for employers to violate child labor laws and illegally employ and exploit immigrant children.

The Foundation for Government Accountability is also backing the passage of an Iowa bill that Senate Republicans worked overnight to push through the legislature last week. The bill would allow children to serve alcohol at restaurants and expand the number of hours they’re allowed to work in a day. And, in Missouri, emails obtained by the Post show that Republicans’ bill to eliminate work permits for child laborers was in part written and revised by the group.

These bills come at a time when child labor violations are increasing — since 2018, the Labor Department has noted a nearly 70 percent increase in cases of illegal child labor. Instead of cracking down on violators, as the Biden administration has pledged to do, Republicans’ strategy appears to be enacting legislation to ensure that the violations in question aren’t against the law to begin with.

The think tank has been laying the groundwork for the new wave of child labor bills for at least over a year. In January 2022, the group published a paper entitled “How States Can Streamline the Hiring Process for Teenage Workers and Restore Decision-Making to Parents”— a purposefully misleading framing about supposed parental choice to distract from the fact that child labor is uniquely dangerous, especially when children are forced to work in industrial workplaces, as the Iowa bill would allow.

The paper lays out legal avenues for Republicans to maneuver within to pass child labor expansion bills, pointing out that there are no federal laws requiring permits for child labor. The paper also discusses ways that social safety nets can be slashed in order to force more children into work and says that teenagers are a “critical source of labor.” Just months after the paper was published, an Opportunity Solutions project lobbyist sent two drafts of child labor bills to the chief of staff of the chair of the Missouri Senate’s committee on education and workforce development.

In Arkansas’s case, the group didn’t attempt to hide its ties to the bill; in March, the group’s vice president of communications, Nick Stehle, wrote an op-ed for Fox News infused with a litany of disinformation about the effects of loosening child labor laws and praising Sanders for signing the bill.

Child labor is just one of the initiatives that the Foundation for Government Accountability champions. The ground was founded in 2011 by a former Maine legislator, Tarren Bragdon, with money from the State Policy Network, an expansive group with ties to the Koch and DeVos families.

The group has backed a recent bill in the Iowa legislature to increase means testing for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps — kicking thousands off the program and spending an estimated $18 million to do so. The group has also worked for years to stop states from expanding Medicaid under provisions put forth by the Affordable Care Act.

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