In this May 2014 file photo, preschool teacher Cindy Ambrose teaches students at Little Angels Day Care and Preschool in Bangor. Credit: Brian Feulner / BDN

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 One of the biggest lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic — besides the importance of investing in public health and clear communications during an emergency — is that the United States has been asking families to do too much.

That’s starting to change.

In Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, policy makers are looking at ways to increase support for childcare, recognizing that for too long our current system has failed families.

The failure is deep. There aren’t enough high-quality child care spots available, the costs for a child to attend when there are spots can be unaffordable and yet the pay for the essential workers who perform this vital service is too low to attract and retain a qualified workforce.

The market can’t solve this problem unless we are willing to accept a system where wealthy families can afford high-quality childcare and everyone else is left to fend for themselves.

More than just unfair, it’s a brake on the well-being of our communities, hampering the ability of women — who in most cases perform the majority of the childcare duties — to fully participate in the workforce, leaving some children at a learning disadvantage and placing some kids in harm’s way as families make due as best they can with a hodge-podge of childcare workarounds.

My kids are too old for child care, but during my time as a reporter and working in state government, finding and keeping them in a high-quality child care program was a real challenge. We had to navigate waitlists, then the closure of two different programs where our kids were enrolled all while paying more each month than we did for our mortgage.

Early this week, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill into law that will increase investments in quality early childhood education, expand access and improve affordability.

The Mills administration has also proposed to use significant resources from the American Rescue Plan, estimated at about $130 million, to improve childcare in the state.

Vermont, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., are going even further. Each state is considering legislation that would use public dollars to cap out-of-pocket costs for families while also investing in higher quality and better pay for workers.

Along with Maine’s nation-leading expansion of school meals, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson and co-sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau among others, lawmakers in the state and Democrats in Washington have recognized that families simply can’t go it alone when it comes to taking care of our children.

LD 1679, as Jackson and Fecteau wrote in the Bangor Daily News, “will ensure any Maine child who goes to school can access a free, nutritious school meal — no questions asked.”

In addition to providing rescue funding to Maine that helps to make these programs possible, President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan is also putting money directly into the pockets of working families through an expanded child tax credit.

While the plan increased the amount of the credit from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under six, and $3,000 for children under 18, the Rescue Plan also pays the credit out in advance directly to families. Qualifying families should start to see the money show up in their accounts soon, as a boost to help as they try to recover from the economic calamity caused by COVID-19.

We all share an interest in making sure that the children who live in our communities get off to a strong start. It helps the economy and strengthens the workforce of the future. But it’s more than that.

We all share an obligation to make sure that kids have enough to eat, have access to great early childhood educators and that their families — who work hard and pay their taxes — don’t constantly struggle to pay the bills.

Our country faces massive economic inequalities. Leveling the field for kids is a smart, practical and caring way to start making reforms.

David Farmer, Opinion columnist

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist....