The halls of Congress were filled today not with lobbyists in suits but with babies in strollers and toddlers waddling alongside their parents to demand help from legislators.
“It’s really important that our legislators are taking care of our kids’ futures because it’s our country’s future too,” said Amy Lingerfelt, who traveled from Kansas with her husband and 2-year-old son, Noah.
“Noah is not just a kid in Kansas,” she said. “He could be an astronaut or the president one day.”
Noah has a sensory processing disorder and has been in early Head Start since the age of six months, according to Lingerfelt. Due to stomach issues, he also relies on a special formula that the family receives through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
“There’s no way our family would be able to afford that without WIC,” said Lingerfelt, referring to the federally-funded program that provides nutrition services for low-income women and children up to age 5.
Protecting and increasing funding for programs like WIC is just one of the policy priorities of Strolling Thunder, which brought in families from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to meet with their members of Congress.
The lobbying day is organized by Zero to Three, a national non-profit organization focused on supporting children up to age 3.
“The science is clear that our brains grow faster between ages of 0 to 3 than at any stage later life,” said Dr. Myra Jones-Taylor, the organization’s chief policy officer. “Babies’ brains form more than 1 million new neural connections each second.”
She added, “Parents are the best advocates for their children and we believe strongly in raising the voices of parents.”
The lobbying event included a rally featuring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but mostly it gave parents like Karina and Ben Hoff a chance to show legislators that funding requests are more than just numbers in a bill.
The Hoffs’ daughter, Lucia, 14 months, was born with a cleft palate and is on Medicaid. The couple, who are both visually impaired, also rely on a home health nurse through a federally-funded program.
“We’ve definitely benefited from several programs and we want to make sure there is funding for future generations,” Karina Hoff said. “Accessibility to health care helps us succeed in taking care of our children.”
There were approximately 11.9 million children under the age of 3 in the U.S. as of 2016, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
Those children scored a "historic win" earlier this year, according to Jones-Taylor, when Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that included a $2.37 billion boost to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which helps offset the cost of childcare for low-income families.
The bill also included a $115 million increase in funding for Early Head Start, a program for low-income pregnant women, infants and toddlers up to age 3, and first-time funding for mental health support for infants and toddlers.
Strolling Thunder parents want to make sure that the funding, which Jones-Taylor described as a "down payment," is not reversed and continues to grow.
The funding should matter to everyone, even people who are not currently benefiting from the programs, according to Lingerfelt.
"This is not something that I ever thought would be in the realm of possibilities," Lingerfelt, 25, said of lobbying Congress for funding for early childhood intervention. "I think it’s important for other people to realize that kids like Noah, and kids of all ages, they’re going to be our future."
In addition to funding requests, Strolling Thunder participants are also asking Congress to pass the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, that would create a national program to make paid leave available to all workers and their families.
Their attention is also focused on the Childcare for Working Families Act that would build on the Child Care and Development Block Grant, with particular focus on childcare for infants and toddlers.
"I’ve had job opportunities but I couldn’t take them because I didn’t have anyone to watch [Lucia]," Hoff said. "I had to decline because childcare is very expensive and if we had cheaper childcare parents would have better opportunities to get a job."
Beyond Washington, D.C., Strolling Thunder is also happening on the local level -- with rallies planned in Colorado, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, California and Washington state this month and next -- and online at ThinkBabies.org.
"Babies who don’t get what their growing brains need during this critical time can face lifelong health, physical and developmental problems that end up costing this country in many ways," said Jones-Taylor. "It is such a waste to not make sure each child reaches their full potential."