In this April 29, 2020, file photo, a shopper wears a mask as she looks over meat products at a grocery store in Dallas. Credit: LM Otero / AP

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We are unaccustomed to paying the true costs of many of the things we buy.

Whether it’s energy, child care or home health care or the food we eat, real prices have been obscured by a broken market that has helped wealth to accumulate at the top while most working people keep toiling away with little ability to get ahead.

Consider child care. The Portland Press Herald took a deep look at the collapse of the child care system in Maine during the pandemic and now as we emerge from the crisis.

Families can’t afford to pay the real value of child care. Child care businesses are closing because they can’t afford to pay their workers what they deserve for the work they do. The result is fewer and fewer slots for high-quality child care, higher prices and long waiting lists.

“More than 170 day care operators in the state have closed since the pandemic began, and those that are still in business can’t find enough employees to staff them, in part because wages are so low,” the Press Herald reported.

When my two children were younger, the cost of child care exceeded the monthly mortgage payment on our house. The pressure eventually played a role in my decision to leave journalism, which chronically underpays journalists despite tremendous responsibilities and deadline pressures.

Child care wages need to go up both to improve the quality of life for the people performing the work and to account for the difficulty of the job itself. But there’s no room in many family budgets to account for the increase in labor costs.

Right now, gas prices nationally average a little more than $3 a gallon. Even so, the cost of the environmental impact of burning that gasoline isn’t factored into the price. In Maine, transportation is responsible for 54 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. With every gallon we pump, we’re taking out a loan that we will have to repay to address climate change.

Food prices are climbing, with the cost of meat soaring. Again, we have grown accustomed to mass-produced food grown on megafarms and centrally processed. Poorly paid workers doing dangerous jobs and environmental degradation are part of the bargain for a cheap pork chop or a plate of chicken wings.

Meanwhile, at least 55 of the largest corporations in America paid no federal taxes last year despite profits of more than $40 billion. Most of that tax avoidance is perfectly legal. I don’t begrudge the companies for following the law to their advantage. I just think that we need to change the law.

And while essential workers were risking their lives to stock grocery shelves or care for seniors in assisted living facilities, CBS News reported that “the world’s 2,365 billionaires enjoyed a $4 trillion boost to their wealth during the first year of the pandemic, increasing their fortunes by 54%.”

As you might recall, recently I had an emergency plumbing problem that required professional help. I got off lucky. The bill was about $150 because the plumber was skilled, professional and quick. Given that the basement was flooding, it was well worth the money.

But for someone making $15 an hour the math is hard to overcome. That visit from the plumber was the equivalent of 10 hours of work — before accounting for taxes.

The answer, I believe, is a tax system that is more fair, which asks successful companies and billionaires to pay their fair share so that we can provide the public investments to improve lives.

The cost of caring for our community’s young and old should be shared as part of our obligation to one another. The investment will pay off in greater stability, productivity and happiness.

And we should all get accustomed to paying higher prices as true costs more closely align with sticker price.

We should value workers and treat them like more than a replaceable cog in the great economic machine. Our policies should reflect the reality of life. Workers should be paid a living wage — with support from the government if necessary — and have access to affordable health care, paid family and medical leave because we recognize as a society that people get sick, have babies and need to care for relatives. 

Work should empower a good, stable life, not be a life sentence of barely getting by.

The U.S. economy is the most advanced and prosperous the world has ever seen. It has generated tremendous wealth and opportunity. Now it’s time for more people to see the benefits of that prosperity.

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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....