As my two small children and I cried together while listening to President Biden’s calls for unity last Wednesday, I realized that to truly heal our nation, we must support our traumatized kids – and their caregivers. The most effective path toward healing is by strengthening our struggling child care sector, which was in acute crisis even before this devastating pandemic.

High-quality child care supports the development of young children’s minds as well as their physical and emotional well-being. Some providers, like Youth and Family Outreach in Portland, also provide nutritious and fresh food at no additional cost, and with nearly 1 in 5 children in Cumberland County experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic, this is no small matter. Caregivers juggling work and educational responsibilities in these extraordinarily challenging times experience deep relief knowing that their kids have a safe place to go.

Yet quality child care in the Portland area was already unaffordable and inaccessible even for affluent families, because of years-long waitlists and astronomical costs. Those who qualify for income-based child care subsidies often face an uneven patchwork of programs and can lose access because of bureaucratic hurdles. Some New Mainers aren’t even eligible for these limited subsidies, preventing them from entering the workforce in this tight job market.

As families crunch the numbers during this recession and realize they may be losing money to keep their children in care, many have made the choice to exit the labor force entirely, a burden that has fallen almost exclusively on Maine’s women and setting tentative progress toward gender equality back decades. Women of color are statistically less likely to have the option to leave the labor force and may rely on less-than-ideal care options, meaning that their kids are denied the advantages that come with high-quality early care and perpetuating the cycle of systemic racism.

Meanwhile, providers face an impossibly thin profit margin, once again made worse by the pandemic as parents pull their children from programs. State relief has not been enough to close the gap. The stipends that Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services paid to individual child care providers last May were made in good faith, but the sums of $175 or $75 per child awarded are dwarfed by the cost of up to $1,798 for one child’s spot when payment isn’t provided. Earnings for child care workers are unconscionably low; the average hourly wage for child care workers in Maine is $13.51, or $28,100 a year. It’s no wonder turnover in the field is troublingly high.

Many employers have begun to recognize the recruitment and retention problems posed by this crisis. In a recent survey by the Portland Chamber of Commerce, 70 percent of respondents said their employees experienced challenges finding affordable, quality child care, and nearly all agreed that increasing access to quality early care should be a focus for our community.

But this problem is too big for businesses, private philanthropy or even our state government to tackle alone. Gov. Mills and the commission that she appointed to tackle Maine’s economic recovery have provided exceptional leadership on this issue, noting that “the state will need to invest significantly more – on par with its investment in the K-12 system – to establish a comprehensive system of early care and education.” To support this, the nation requires a massive overhaul of child care funding at the federal level, including investment in the infrastructure of existing quality centers, which can serve as replicable models for the rest of the sector. This is an issue that cuts across party lines and class divides, and that serves to advance racial justice: a perfect early win for the Biden administration.

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