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The future of the economy hinges on child care

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Part of The Great Rebuild Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


It was a Tuesday in March when Ellen Drolette heard that schools were closing. Later that day, she learned the Burlington, Vermont, child care home where she looked after six kids would also have to shut down due to the spread of Covid-19 across the country.

“I thought this was going to be maybe two weeks,” Drolette said. But if it went on much longer, she didn’t really have a plan to stay afloat financially. Drolette, who relies on parent fees to pay herself and her assistant, didn’t have much of a cushion — especially since her husband, a general contractor, is also self-employed. “I wasn’t really sure what we were going to do,” she added.

As stay-at-home orders were imposed and extended around the country, thousands of day care providers were in the same boat. Many were forced to close, and still others saw their enrollment drop precipitously, with parents keeping kids home out of fear of the virus — or because they’d lost their jobs in the economic crisis that came with it.

Day cares, which operate on razor-thin margins at the best of times, started running out of money. They had to lay off staff, cutting 370,600 jobs in the child care industry between February and April. The federal government took little action, providing only minimal funding for child care in pandemic stimulus packages. Some day cares began going out of business entirely.

But Drolette’s wasn’t one of them. “The state jumped in really quickly,” she said. “They made a commitment to pay us if parents could not pay us.”

While other states let their child care industries languish, Vermont bailed out its child care industry. Providers that closed because of the pandemic got money to keep their staff on the payroll. Those who remained open to care for the children of essential workers received hazard pay and other support. And in the summer, when more centers started to reopen, they got restart grants to help them with the added expenses — such as cleaning supplies and additional staff — of caring for children during Covid-19.

The money allowed Drolette to continue paying her assistant while her center was closed this spring. And in part because they didn’t have to scrounge for other work, she and other providers in the state came together for Zoom support groups and professional development sessions where they talked through the challenges of reopening, from how to safely greet parents to what protective equipment to wear for mandatory temperature checks. The feeling for many was, “I’m getting paid, I’m going to do this work,” Drolette said.

Vermont understood something the US has long ignored but the pandemic has thrown into high relief: Without child care workers, the American economy simply cannot function.

“These jobs enable other people to work and get back to work,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It’s the thing that makes everything else possible.”

But across America, the workers who care for and educate young children still make an average of just $10.72 an hour, and many lack benefits such as health insurance and paid leave. These factors lead to high turnover, which in turn affects the quality of care kids receive. Yet that care is still so expensive that it’s out of reach for many families.

Amid the pandemic, the urgency of the situation is clearer than ever. Parents are trying to watch kids while working full-time, day cares are closing down, and everyone is beginning to face the reality that if and when normal life ever resumes, child care simply won’t be there to support it unless we act now. The county needs a cultural shift toward valuing child care and early education workers as the professionals — and essential workers — they are. That starts with a bailout, and Vermont may offer the nation lessons on how to do it.


Despite the Norman Rockwell vision of a housewife (nearly always white) caring for her kids at home while her husband goes off to work, parents in America — especially single and working-class parents — have always needed outside child care. And they’ve never had an easy time getting it.

For decades, working parents mostly relied on other family members to care for their kids, Elizabeth Palley, a professor of social work at Adelphi University who has studied the history of child care policy, told Vox. In the late 19th century, settlement houses — early social-service providers in urban areas — began opening nurseries to care for children of factory workers, many of them European immigrants. In Black communities, mutual aid groups also provided child care.

But the US government would not invest in child care until World War II, when the Lanham Act provided federal funding to subsidize care for the children of women who worked while men were away at war. This early subsidy program ended when the war did, running out in 1946.

The federal government again took up child care in the 1960s with the Head Start program, instituted under President Lyndon Johnson to provide preschool education to low-income 3- and 4-year-olds. Head Start has been a big success, with research showing benefits for kids’ vocabulary entering school, as well as their social and emotional development later on.

But it faced pushback as white voters objected to a program aimed primarily at low-income kids in cities, many of whom were children of color. “White people don’t want to pay for Black people’s children to be cared for” in America, Palley said. That same systemic racism has dogged efforts to expand subsidized child care over the years.

And in this country, there’s also a longstanding cultural expectation that mothers should stay home with kids. Even in 2019, 21 percent of US adults said it was best for women with young children to stay home, while 42 percent said it was best for them to work part-time, according to a Pew Research survey. (Only 33 percent said it was best for a mom to work full-time.) That expectation has scuttled proposals for universal child care in the past, including legislation introduced during the Nixon administration. “I think there was a fear that women were leaving the home,” Palley said, and that federally funded child care would help them do so.

As a result, there’s never been a sustained effort in this country to treat caring for children like a “community responsibility, as opposed to the individual responsibility of parents,” Palley said. Instead, there’s a “patchwork of programs” that leave out millions of American families.

For example, low-income families can get subsidies for child care through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, but the program only has enough funding to serve about 15 percent of eligible families. Meanwhile, in addition to Head Start, a number of cities, including New York and Washington, DC, have recently introduced free or subsidized universal preschool. But there’s no nationwide preschool program, and those that exist don’t help parents with care for infants and toddlers, which is even more expensive.

Many parents are left shouldering child care costs that top $1,000 a month in many states, often more than the average rent.

But even that barely covers the cost of caring for young children, which requires low student-to-teacher ratios and adherence to many safety requirements, as well as fixed costs such as rent, supplies, and food for kids. Many child care programs struggle to get by in the best of times.

In other words, while many individual caregivers and programs work incredibly hard with limited resources, the system as a whole is a mess — barely a system at all.

In fact, America’s entire caregiving infrastructure, such as it is, “was a house of cards before the pandemic,” Poo said. “And then the pandemic just basically collapsed it.”


When day cares around the country closed due to the coronavirus, some asked parents to keep paying fees anyway. But with rising unemployment, many couldn’t afford it, and others chose to withdraw their children indefinitely out of fear of Covid-19 transmission. With little to no cash on hand, programs had to lay off staff: More than a third of the child care workforce lost jobs between February and April, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Many programs reopened in the summer, but that doesn’t mean things are better. In many cases, families haven’t sent their children back, meaning centers are making less money than before. Many also face new enrollment limits due to social distancing restrictions. And costs are higher than ever, thanks to the need for cleaning products, personal protective equipment, and other modifications to keep staff and children safer during the pandemic.

As a result, many laid-off workers haven’t been hired back. Only 42 percent of the child care jobs lost returned between April and July, according to the NWLC, and the industry is at just 79 percent of its pre-pandemic size.

Nancy Harvey, for example, had to lay off two staff members at her in-home child care program in Oakland, California, when enrollment dropped from 16 children to seven. She’s kept her business open and has been working to organize with the Child Care Providers United union, but “to hear the stories of providers that have had to close, it’s really heart-wrenching,” she said.

Indeed, in a June survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, just 18 percent of child care programs expect to stay open longer than a year without public support.

That has obvious consequences for child care workers, many of whom lack savings and relied on public assistance programs even before the pandemic hit. And it has implications for the entire economy — especially for women, who still carry the majority of caregiving responsibilities in families. As Michelle Holder, an economics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Vox earlier this year, “It’s not good for economic growth if you have primarily women having to reduce or eliminate working altogether” because of a lack of child care.

Vermont recognized that. “We were the only state to date that said we aren’t going to let this industry go bankrupt,” Aly Richards, CEO of the Vermont-based nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, told Vox. “So many states literally just were silent on child care.”

Starting in March, Vermont spent $21 million to keep its child care programs from going under. When they were closed in the spring, they received half their usual tuition directly from the state. Parents were responsible for the other half, but if they couldn’t pay, the state would make up the difference so that providers didn’t have to lay off staff.

Programs that stayed open to care for the children of essential workers received bonuses of $125 per week per child.

With their pay covered, Drolette and other educators were able to spend time checking in on kids remotely. “We were setting up Zoom calls to talk to the families and the children at home and reading books to them so that there was still that connection,” she said.

When Drolette and other Vermont providers began reopening in June, they were eligible for restart stipends to help them pay for supplies or hire additional staff to comply with social distancing restrictions. In August, the state announced an additional $12 million in grants to help replace income lost between March 1 and October 31.

In Drolette’s case, two families decided not to send their kids back to day care in June. But the restart money she got from the state — about $2,000 — helped offset some of her losses until new children enrolled.

And state officials say their programs to support child care have made an impact. The state hasn’t seen a spike in program closures this year, Sarah Truckle, financial director of Vermont’s Department of Children and Families, said. And the restart grants have been well-received, with a large portion of providers in the state choosing to participate, she said. Of a total of 1,016 programs serving children under age 5, 613 applied for restart grants, according to data provided by Let’s Grow Kids. The grants were not competitive, so most if not all programs likely received money.

Parents, too, are grateful that the state stepped in. “I was really panicked about it,” Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician whose 3- and 4-year-old sons attend an early childhood education center in Chittenden County. When Vermont first announced stay-at-home orders, she was worried the center would have to shut down permanently. And when she found out the state would be supporting providers, “It was very reassuring,” she said. “It really underscored value in an area that I think is really undervalued.”

Her kids were finally able to go back to their center in June. “The day that they went back was the most glorious day of the pandemic,” Bell said with a laugh. “If there’s any light in this, it was really just the true absolute gift of being able to send our children to a safe and nurturing place, knowing that they were well cared for and loved while all this other stuff is going on.”


Now, advocates say, it’s time for the rest of the US to learn from Vermont so that kids around the country have the same opportunity. “We’ve seen Vermont lead by example before,” Richards said, noting that the state was one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage. “If we continue to keep our heads down and do the work here, we will show you can do this, and it’s great for your people when you do it.”

A number of proposals would do for providers around the country what Vermont has with its programs. In July, for example, the House passed the Child Care Is Essential Act, which would set aside $50 billion to stabilize America’s child care system during the pandemic and strengthen it for the future. But the proposal has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan for economic recovery from Covid-19 offers one version of what such reform might look like. The plan would provide funding to state, tribal, and local governments to do what Vermont did — support child care providers and keep workers employed during the public health crisis. “This pandemic has shone a bright light on the challenges Americans are facing with balancing work responsibilities with caring for their families,” Mariel Sáez, women’s media director for the Biden campaign, wrote in a statement.

But providers and their advocates say that even in Vermont, there are larger systemic problems that need to be fixed for workers, kids, and parents to thrive.

“The money allowed us to continue,” said Kim Freeman, a longtime early educator in Brattleboro, Vermont, who recently transitioned to teaching future educators. But “it just brings me back to how underfunded we were to start with.”

The stabilization program and restart grants didn’t change the fact that workers earn low wages — an average of $13.27 an hour in Vermont — and often lack benefits. And that, in turn, can affect the care children receive.

For example, kids benefit when their caregivers have training in child development. “To me, child care is keeping that child safe and meeting their basic needs,” Freeman said. “Early childhood education is that and so much more.” Research has shown that young children “need to be in environments that support their development and they need to be in relationships with people who support their development,” she added.

But workers in the field have little incentive or resources to get additional training when they’re not making a living wage.

And many say what’s needed now is reform to make child care and early education a well-paid, rewarding career that people can afford to stay in for the long term.

Freeman, who is preparing to train high school students in early education, said, “I’m not even going to get into stuff about the kids until I talk about their own personal well-being and building their resilience.” And for her, rebuilding the country’s child care infrastructure should start there. “Do these people have their basic needs met? Are they making a wage where they’re not worried about the survival of themselves, of their families?” she added.

Drolette, along with members of one of her Zoom groups from earlier in the pandemic, have been meeting with policymakers to discuss ideas for better funding the child care system. Elected officials in Vermont — all the way up to Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican — have been receptive, she said, in part because they already think of early education as a priority. Scott “understands that in order to have a strong economy, we need to have a strong early ed system,” Drolette added.

That message hasn’t necessarily been heard around the country yet. But leaders — and candidates — have been making child care part of their platforms in an unprecedented way. In many ways, former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren led the charge early last year, making child care a core part of her campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Biden’s plan borrows many aspects of Warren’s thinking, going beyond the pandemic to strengthen America’s child care and early education system for the future. The plan would provide free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as create a system of tax credits and subsidies to make child care more affordable for parents of infants and toddlers. Crucially, Biden’s plan would boost the pay of child care workers to the level of elementary school teachers and provide them with health insurance, paid sick leave, and other benefits, as well as training and education programs to help them build new skills.

“We are the bloodline to America,” Harvey said. “Instead of treating us like second-class citizens, treat us like kings and queens. We deserve it.”

Anna North covers gender issues, including reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, and more for Vox.

This story is part of The Great Rebuild, a project made possible thanks to support from Omidyar Network, a social impact venture that works to reimagine critical systems and the ideas that govern them, and to build more inclusive and equitable societies. All Great Rebuild coverage is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.

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World

All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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