OUR CRUCIAL SPRING CAMPAIGN IS NOW UNDERWAY
Please donate now to keep the mission and independent journalism of Common Dreams strong.
To donate by check, phone, or other method, see our More Ways to Give page.
A new study shows that unhealthy beverages were still in almost half of elementary schools in the 2008-2009 school year. While the volume of sugar drinks sold in elementary schools is much lower than in high schools, unhealthy beverages--and foods--don't belong in any schools.
Congress has the chance to change this by passing the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act when it returns for the lame duck session. That bipartisan bill passed the Senate unanimously in August and includes a provision to get junk food and soda out of schools.
Unlike a decade ago, improving school foods is no longer controversial. The child nutrition bill has the support of not only public health organizations, but also school groups and food and beverage companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
Given the sky-high rates of childhood obesity, Congress needs to support parents and protect kids by passing the child nutrition bill to finally get sugary drinks and junk food out of all schools.
Since 1971, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been a strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science.
Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patty Murray warned that the looming expiration of emergency funds "will likely force providers to lay off staff or shut down."
Already among the worst and least affordable in the developed world, the U.S. childcare system could soon be "pushed closer to the brink of collapse" if Congress doesn't act before emergency federal funding runs dry at the end of September.
That grave warning is at the heart of a report released Tuesday by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), top members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
Sanders, the chair of the panel, summarized the report's findings during a HELP Committee hearing on Wednesday, noting that more than $37 billion in pandemic relief funding approved under the American Rescue Plan and other legislation helped keep the nation's fragmented childcare sector afloat during the deadly public health crisis.
"This funding kept over 200,000 childcare providers in business, sustained childcare for nearly 10 million kids, and prevented a million childcare workers from losing their jobs," the Vermont senator said Wednesday, referring to the $24 billion in Child Care Stabilization Grant (CCSG) funds approved under the American Rescue Plan, which Biden signed in March 2021.
All 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana, and the U.S. Virgin Islands operated Child Care Stabilization programs during the pandemic, according to the Biden White House, and 90% of providers that received funding from the federal grant program said the money helped them keep their doors open during the coronavirus crisis.
"That is the good news," Sanders said Tuesday. "The bad news is that if Congress does nothing, this funding will expire on September 30th of this year, making a very bad situation even worse."
\u201cLIVE: Every family in America deserves high quality, affordable child care and every child care worker deserves a livable wage. The HELP Committee is holding a hearing NOW on how we can make that a reality. https://t.co/ogDf1n1TV0\u201d— Bernie Sanders (@Bernie Sanders) 1685541749
Citing survey responses from more than 12,000 early childhood educators, the new report says the end of the emergency federal funding could force many childcare providers to raise prices for families, serve fewer children, or slash wages for childcare workers who are already badly underpaid.
By law, states have until September 30 to distribute the federal money provided under the American Rescue Plan.
"Just as these grants helped to temporarily fill a gap in funding in the childcare sector," the report notes, "they will likely leave programs with a significant hole when funding runs out on September 30, 2023."
Childcare workers and advocates across the country have been bracing for the end of federal funding for months and sounding the alarm about the consequences of inaction.
In a July 2022 letter, dozens of national organizations warned congressional leaders that failure to make new investments in the nation's funding-starved childcare sector would shove the system "closer to a catastrophic funding cliff that will affect America's entire economy, resulting in higher prices and longer waitlists for families and reduced access to quality care for children, while lower wages push more early educators out of the field."
That letter was sent shortly before Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, legislation that was gutted by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other right-wing Democrats.
Childcare provisions were stripped out of the bill entirely.
"How can a working family, making $50,000 or $60,000 a year, afford to spend $15,000 or $30,000 on childcare?"
Murray, the former chair of the Senate HELP Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that "failing to invest in childcare means failing to invest in our economy—it means worsening an already serious workforce shortage."
"Our nation's childcare sector was hanging on by a thread before the pandemic, and it was headed straight for collapse when Covid hit our country and providers prepared to close their doors for good," she said. "The historic federal investment in our nation's childcare sector that I fought tooth and nail to deliver saved the childcare sector from collapse."
"But the funding we provided will expire this fall—which will likely force providers to lay off staff or shut down, force parents to leave work when they lose their child care, and take a wrecking ball to our economic recovery—unless we take action," the Washington Democrat added.
As of 2021, The New York Timesreported that year, the governments of rich countries spent an average of $14,000 per kid on childcare annually. The U.S., by contrast, spent just $500 per child.
During Wednesday's hearing, Sanders stressed that in addition to renewing the federal funding that is set to lapse in a matter of months, Congress needs "a vision for the future which understands that every family in America has the right to high-quality, affordable childcare."
"I think that all of us pride ourselves as a nation that loves our kids. We all understand that our children are the future of America. But, we have a funny way of showing that love," Sanders said. "Today, it costs about $15,000 a year, on average, to send an infant to childcare in our country and in D.C. it can cost, in some cases, $30,000 a year. How can a working family, making $50,000 or $60,000 a year, afford to spend $15,000 or $30,000 on childcare?"
The court found that two bans passed in 2022 conflicted with the Oklahoma Constitution's guarantee of a pregnant person's "inherent right" to life.
The Oklahoma state Supreme Court on Wednesday became the latest state-level court to rebuke Republican legislation passed in recent months to bar residents from accessing abortion care, ruling that two laws signed by GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt are unconstitutional.
The court found that S.B. 1603 and H.B. 4327 both conflict with an earlier ruling in March, when five of the nine justices ruled that the Oklahoma Constitution guarantees the "inherent right of a pregnant woman to terminate a pregnancy when necessary to preserve her life."
Earlier this year, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a six-week abortion ban violated the state's constitutional right to privacy. Republicans in the state ignored that finding this month as they passed another six-week ban, only to have a state judge grant abortion providers and three rights groups a temporary restraining order, blocking the law from taking effect.
The ruling by the Oklahoma court on Wednesday was 6-3, with Justice Richard Darby joining the majority due to the precedent set by the March ruling.
S.B. 1603 banned abortion care after the point at which an ultrasound can detect an electronically induced sound from the tissue that will become a fetus' heart—often erroneously referred to as an actual fetal heartbeat by pro-forced pregnancy groups and lawmakers.
H.B. 4327 imposed a near-total ban on abortion care with exceptions for medical emergencies in which a pregnant person's life was at risk and for cases of rape or incest that had been reported to law enforcement.
As Common Dreamsreported in April, the life of at least one woman in Oklahoma was put at risk by those so-called "exceptions" when she developed a cancerous molar pregnancy and was told by three different hospitals that she could not obtain an abortion for the condition, which had no chance of ever developing into a fetus.
The woman, Jaci Statton, was eventually advised by one hospital staffer to wait in the facility's parking lot until her heavy bleeding and other symptoms reached the point of "crashing," at which point doctors would be able to treat her without fearing a lawsuit permitted under Oklahoma's laws.
In the state Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday, said Slate journalist Mark Joseph Stern, "the majority found that both the total ban and the 'heartbeat' ban lacked a sufficient exception for medical emergencies."
\u201cThe majority found that both the total ban and the "heartbeat" ban lacked a sufficient exception for medical emergencies, and that the remainder of each bill was not severable from the emergency provision. So it struck down both laws in their entirety. Quite a big deal.\u201d— Mark Joseph Stern (@Mark Joseph Stern) 1685547764
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond responded to the ruling by saying a 1910 abortion ban is still in effect due to the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. The law bans abortion care except when it is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant person.
"Except for certain circumstances outlined in that statute, abortion is still unlawful in the state of Oklahoma," Drummond said.
\u201cThe Oklahoma AG appears to believe that abortion remains illegal in the state under a 1910 criminal ban, which tees up another challenge at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. It strikes me as ... unlikely that this court will allow that law to be enforced.\nhttps://t.co/sH4pG2DM17\u201d— Mark Joseph Stern (@Mark Joseph Stern) 1685547764
The Republican attorney general's claim "tees up another challenge at the Oklahoma Supreme Court," said Stern.
Considering the justices' recent rulings, he said, "it strikes me as... unlikely that this court will allow that law to be enforced."
"We cannot allow generative AI to promote a parasitic economy that diverts financial resources that should benefit the news media," said one advocate.
Warning of the ongoing expansion of artificial intelligence-generated websites that resemble legitimate news outlets and draw ad revenue away from them, Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday implored search engines and advertisers to slow the spread of automated "content farms" by denying them access to "funds that should be reserved for real journalism."
"We cannot allow generative AI to promote a parasitic economy that diverts financial resources that should benefit the news media," Vincent Berthier, head of the Tech Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said in a statement.
"As well as an overall fall in the quality of online information, there is also a real danger of a further decline in funding essential to online media," said Berthier. "We urge search engines and advertisers not to allow these AI-generated sites to become profitable."
"As well as an overall fall in the quality of online information, there is also a real danger of a further decline in funding essential to online media."
Earlier this month, NewsGuard, which evaluates the reliability of online news and information, published an analysis entitled Rise of the Newsbots: AI-Generated News Websites Proliferating Online.
The report identified at least 49 ostensible news websites "spanning seven languages—Chinese, Czech, English, French, Portuguese, Tagalog, and Thai—that appear to be entirely or mostly generated by artificial intelligence language models designed to mimic human communication."
These automated content farms, which reach millions of internet users, "churn out vast amounts of clickbait articles to optimize advertising revenue," NewsGuard noted, exacerbating the dangerous worldwide spread of misinformation in the process.
As RSF noted Wednesday:
Dressed up to look like media, some of these sites rewrite journalistic content plundered from real news sites. Others produce fake stories or mediocre content designed solely to attract traffic. One reported in April that Joe Biden had died. Another falsely reported that Ukraine had claimed that it killed 3,870 Russian soldiers in a single attack.
Generated by AI and usually run anonymously, some of these sites "publish hundreds of articles a day," according to NewsGuard. There is a real risk that the Internet will soon be flooded by many more of these sites pumping out garbage that will inevitably congest search engines, with the result that reliable news reporting will struggle to make itself visible.
The modus operandi of these sites is very simple—maximize clicks while minimizing effort in order to optimize profit. "Many of the sites are saturated with advertisements," says NewsGuard, "indicating that they were likely designed to generate revenue from programmatic ads—ads that are placed algorithmically across the web."
"Advertisers have a huge responsibility," RSF continued. "These content farms will inevitably proliferate if they can continue to make money from advertising. The ad industry must give a firm undertaking to ensure ads are placed above all with media that are reliable news sources."
The watchdog also urged the ad industry "to manage programmatic advertising mechanisms responsibly and to acquire the monitoring and control tools needed to ensure that these content farms do not become profitable."
RSF is pushing advertisers to curb the rapid spread of automated clickbait just weeks after it warned in its annual press freedom report that the fast-growing, AI-powered "fake content industry" threatens to undermine fact-based journalism around the globe, which is already at risk due to old-fashioned violence against reporters, who are being jailed and killed at alarming rates.