Babies took over Capitol Hill to rally for paid family leave and affordable childcare

The calm before the baby storm.
The calm before the baby storm.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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On Tuesday (May 8), Capitol Hill was crawling with babies.

Babies from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with their families, had descended upon the Hill’s east lawn for the annual “Strolling Thunder” Rally, organized by Zero to Three, an early childhood development non-profit. The rally is part of Zero to Three’s “Think Babies” initiative, which urges Congress members to consider the needs of young children and their families in their policy-making.

Several politicians were in attendance, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, House representative Rosa DeLauro and representative Chuck Fleischmann (who, together, co-chair the Congressional Baby Caucus), and representative Bobby Scott. Among the rally attendees, three issues stood out as primary concerns: The need for paid family leave, and for quality, affordable health care and childcare.

Hannah Simmons, a mother of two from Farmington, Minnesota, told Quartz that she’d come to the rally because her personal experience had convinced her of the need to fight for children’s and parents’ rights. Simmons lost her job just six weeks before delivering her second child, which meant that she and her husband lost their insurance. When her baby was born with an undiagnosed critical congenital heart defect that required open-heart surgery, she and her husband were put under immense financial strain. Her husband, the sole source of income for her family at that point, was forced to take unpaid time off from work to help deal with the medical complications of her son’s condition.

“So, we are here to advocate for continued Medicaid coverage for families like ours, and paid family leave, which would have made such a difference for our family had it been available at the time,” she said.

Jessica Tolbert, mother of toddler Jayden Tolbert, had come to the rally with her husband, Omar, to represent the state of Florida. ”We want to be the voice for babies that aren’t able to speak for themselves,” Tolbert said. Like many of the parents at the rally, Tolbert mentioned paid family leave, health care, and affordable childcare as some of the major reasons they had come to lobby members of Congress.

Child plays with a Think Babies installation on the east lawn of Capitol Hill on May 8, 2018.
Child plays with a Think Babies installation on the east lawn of Capitol Hill on May 8, 2018.
Image: Quartz

There’s a good reason why a rally dedicated to babies’ early years focused so overwhelmingly on those issues. As of 2016, the cost of childcare was unaffordable in all but one US state (pdf), according to the nonprofit Childcare Aware of America. That’s based on the threshold established by the US Department of Health and Human Services, which says that the annual cost of childcare should make up less than 7% of the state median yearly income for a two-parent family.

That means childcare is too often a luxury that American families can’t afford, despite evidence (pdf) that quality childcare programs “contribute to the overall short- and long-term success of children and families.” The US is also one of just a few countries belonging to the United Nations that does not have a national paid parental leave policy. And in 2016, only about 14% of civilian workers’ benefits (excluding federal, military, and agricultural workers) included paid family leave—even though Americans generally support paid family and medical leave. That’s a major issue, as science that tells us that “newborn family leave has significant positive effects on the health of young children, rates of breastfeeding, and fathers’ involvement with their babies.”

In her speech to the crowd at the rally, Pelosi quoted former US president John F. Kennedy, who said that children are “the world’s most vulnerable resource and its best hope for the future.” That’s certainly true. But the stories of the parents on hand at the rally suggest that while politicians have long paid lip service to children’s value, far too few have taken meaningful action.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.