Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) is reportedly asking Democrats to sacrifice all but one of the essential child-care policies from President Biden’s Build Back Better plan to cut down the bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag.

It’s a shameful proposition. As Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, has said, “Investing in children is not a national luxury or a national choice. It’s a national necessity.” Forcing a choice among the child tax credit, paid family and medical leave, child-care subsidies or universal pre-K is akin to telling a parent with a sick child that they must select one option among food, water, medicine or rest to help their child get better.

Make no mistake: American kids are not all right. We have underinvested in our children for decades, while other nations reinvest in the next generation. Today, the average country in the Western industrialized world spends $14,436 annually per child on toddler care. The United States spends a measly $500.

And we get what we pay for. Even though the United States is the richest country in the world, we rank 39th globally on the “child flourishing index” — which measures children’s well-being based on health, education, nutrition and other living standards. Meanwhile, in a UNICEF report card of child well-being in 38 wealthy countries, the United States ranked 36th — with about 30 percent of its children living in poverty. Worse, both of these reports are based on data from before the covid-19 pandemic exacerbated America’s systemic failures.

Whatever measure you choose, the United States has the means to set up its children for success, but it is utterly failing to do so.

Nevertheless, for children being born today, it’s not too late: The human infrastructure bill’s proposed child-care policies could dramatically transform their future.

Research from the National Partnership for Women & Families shows that paid leave, which gives parents time with newborns at a crucial development stage, leads to both immediate and long-term health benefits for children. The bill’s child-care subsidies could save a typical working family more than $5,000 a year, while the new child tax credit could reduce child poverty by 45 percent. And one study found that children from low-income families in states with universal pre-K saw years of improved test scores.

So it’s no surprise that nearly 80 percent of voters support increased funding for child care and childhood education programs. Yet despite that consensus, fringe Democrats are forcing their colleagues to choose among four crucial pillars of a holistic solution to help struggling families.

That move isn’t just bad politics; it’s self-defeating policy. When the New York Times asked 18 experts to choose between paid leave, child care, pre-K and the child tax credit, they all said it was a “choice they would not want to make,” because these programs work best together. For instance, implementing free pre-K by itself has an unintended consequence: lowering the number of older toddlers going to child-care providers, resulting in higher child-care prices for younger children with more intensive needs. Spending more on child care reduces the child tax credit’s benefits, potentially pushing families back into poverty — which in turn makes schooling less effective.

Ultimately, systemic problems call for systemic solutions. And for those who think a systemic solution to the child-care crisis risks creating a “nanny state,” my colleague Joan Walsh observes, “We already have a nanny state. The rich have nannies; the rest of us piece together what we can for our children.”

And this current nanny state is expensive: When we underinvest in children, we pay the price for the rest of their lives, through higher spending on remedial education, reactive health care and criminal justice. Meanwhile, multiple studies have found that universal pre-K programs, for example, result in higher college attendance rates, lower arrest rates, lower welfare usage and lower unemployment — while subsidized child care can lead to improved health as adults and keep parents in the workforce.

We have the chance to choose a path that’s both more humane and more fiscally responsible. We can absolutely afford to give every child in America the resources they need to live prosperous lives. In fact, we can’t afford not to. As Edelman says, “We do not have a money problem in America. We have a values and priorities problem.”