Talk Poverty: Words vs. Policies

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 | Margy's Blog & Updates

 

 A town hall debate question about gun control is a somewhat unfortunate moment for the candidates to be President of the United States to start discussing issues of poverty, since it suggests that poverty and gun violence are causally linked. But that’s exactly what happened in the second debate between Governor Romney and President Obama.

 

 

Governor Romney started it – by implying that there would be less violence and poverty if more children were raised in two-parent, married households.

 

This reference to an old framing by conservatives had the feel of a prepared talking point looking for a question. The single-parent/poverty narrative is one of the ways conservatives undermine public funding for anti-poverty programs, suggesting that poverty is caused by bad personal choices and a lack of morals rather than systemic causes like stagnant wages and other changes in our labor market.

 

We hear that both candidates prepared talking points they wanted to find a way to make during the second debate. It’s not surprising that Romney would focus on marriage and reducing out-of-wedlock births as primary solutions to poverty. Here’s what he had to say.

 

Governor Romney

 

What I believe is we have to do, as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have, and to change the culture of violence that we have.

 

And you ask how - how are we going to do that? And there are a number of things. He mentioned good schools. I totally agree. We were able to drive our schools to be number one in the nation in my state. And I believe if we do a better job in education, we'll – we'll give people the - the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that.

 

But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the - the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that's not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea.

 

Because if there's a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will – will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity, and bring them in the American system. (My emphasis throughout.)

 

 In fact, Romney said the word "poverty" five times in this debate, but certainly didn't advocate for the kinds of policies that would address the issue. Meanwhile, Obama talked about policy proposals that anti-poverty advocates support without ever mentioning the "P-word".

 

Obama frequently finds ways to advance anti-poverty policy without ever saying the word.  Why?  It is very common for Americans to default to thinking about poverty and the poor in terms of “non-work”, which can easily lead to resentment and an “us vs. them” mindset.  Of course many Americans work full-time and continue to be poor, but that isn’t the image that immediately jumps to mind. President Obama seems particulary aware of the negative stereotype and combats it by framing anti-poverty policies in terms of work, highlighting the fact that people in poverty are workers – currently, recently, and soon to be again.

 

For example, in the early days of the recession, Obama was pressed by advocates to rescind the time limits on temporary cash assistance (welfare) since people couldn’t find work. Instead, without mentioning the request, Obama expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance since many workers were not eligible under limiting definitions in the program. This policy change had a similar effect to the advocates’ request, but resulted in higher benefits for workers, and framed the issue as one of employment, rather than dependency.

 

In the second debate Obama said this, after Romney’s violence and parenting remarks in response to the gun control question:

 

President Obama

 But we can make a difference in terms of ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they  come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed.

 

And Candy, we haven't had a chance to talk about education much. But I think it is very important to understand that the reforms we put in place, working with 46 governors around the country, are seeing schools that are some of the ones that are the toughest for kids starting to succeed. We're starting to see gains in math and science. When it comes to community colleges, we are setting up programs, including with Nassau Community College, to retrain workers, including young people who may have dropped out of school but now are getting another chance -- training them for the jobs that exist right now. And in fact, employers are looking for skilled workers, and so we're matching them up. Giving them access to higher education -- as I said, we have made sure that millions of young people are able to get an education that they weren't able to get before.

 

This isn’t a perfect answer either. Focusing on dropouts and workforce training runs the risk of making people think about irresponsibility again. But, the President was on the right track, emphasizing meeting the needs of employers, which will strengthen local economies, rather than just sharing a story about “helping” the needy.

In fact, advocates have already succeeded by encouraging the President to advance an inclusive narrative that emphasizes the important role of policies in creating an economy that reduces poverty and is good for all. In addition to his remarks outlined above, the President utilized a narrative throughout the debate that will lead to more support for anti-poverty policy, even though he avoided the word and accompanying negative stereotype. 

For example:   

  • Now, the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we are creating jobs in this country. But not just jobs, good paying jobs. Ones that can support a family.
  • My philosophy on taxes has been simple. And that is, I want to give middle-class families and folks who are striving to get into the middle-class some relief. Because they have been hit hard over the last decade. Over the last 15, over the last 20 years.

  • That's not the kind of advocacy that women need. When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That's a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.

  • [T]here are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs.

  • People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough income.
    And I want to fight for them.
    That's what I've been doing for the last four years. Because if they succeed, I believe the country succeeds. When my grandfather fought in World War II and he came back and he got a G.I. Bill and that allowed him to go to college, that wasn't a handout. That was something that advanced the entire country. And I want to make sure that the next generation has those same opportunities. 

     

Still, advocates are right to be concerned that there's not enough public dialogue about the poor. What to do about it?

Most importantly, recognize that this issue easily slips into a negative storyline and “us vs. them” resentment, particularly when people are anxious about their own economic stability.  Some survey questions that track public sentiments suggest a worrisome pattern.

While we might expect voters to be more understanding and supportive since so many are struggling in the recession, that’s not the trend. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of people who agree that government has responsibility to care for the people who can’t care for themselves has declined since 2007, as has support for the statement that government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt.

Building a broad base of support requires developing a conversation that speaks across partisan divides, and the traditional “safety net” message is lacking in this regard.  Pew reports that the partisan divide over views of the social safety net is growing. Of all the issues studied by Pew, this is the area of the greatest partisan divide. There are divisions of 35 points or more about “government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.”

Instead, we need to frame this issue inclusively, using words and phrases that join people in common purpose rather than divide.  For example, a poll by the American Values Network finds that “families striving to make ends meet” and “struggling families” (ideas that most Americans can identify with) rank higher than “poor families” or “underprivileged families”.

We need to ground this issue in work to combat the stereotype of the irresponsible poor.  Again, the American Values Network finds that the top messages they surveyed make a strong connection to work:  “Twenty-six million Americans are paid so little that—even with two full-time wage-earners in the household—they’d still live in poverty.” “Working hard should mean getting ahead and not having to choose between taking your kid to the doctor or keeping a second job that pays the rent.”

We’d all be better off investing our energy and resources in talking to candidates about how to raise issues like an economy that works for all and wage stagnation, the role of government to maintain wage and benefit floors for jobs, and more. These are ways of looking at the issue that have the potential to build broad support, changing the culture of understanding among voters.

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More on Clinton's "Poor" Plan

Monday, March 03, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

On the eve of “(Possibly) Decisive Tuesday”, whether a campaign sets a poverty goal probably doesn’t matter.

Yet, it’s helpful (for our work) to continue this dialogue about whether it was a good plan for Senator Clinton to announce her goal to cut poverty at all.

Is it a good strategy? Shawn suggests that Senator Clinton needed to have a plan in the primary and cites a Huffington Post commentary written by a former Edwards campaign staffer as evidence.

A few reactions:

  • Voters are not clamoring for this - even in the primary, and even in the hard hit areas of southeastern Ohio, where poverty rates are relatively high. In February, the Gallup Poll asked voters about "the most important problem facing the country" and just 2 percent named poverty/hunger/homelessness.


    The dynamic might (possibly!) be different if the primary had come down to a race between Clinton and Edwards. In that case, the target for cutting poverty might have been used by Edwards to illustrate a difference between the candidates. But, that isn’t where we ended up. Moreover, in that scenario, the campaign would likely have undermined the party and the policy goals…given what we know about opposition to the policies and voter preferences.

  • We know that some people (democrats and low-income voters) are persuaded by the sympathy frame (the one that the word “poverty” calls up for voters) to support a limited set of policies. But, this language actually decreases support for a living wage. Moreover, we also know that an economic lens moves these same voters and others to support more of our policy goals!

    So, if there is no true demand for a goal to cut poverty and it won’t help add new voters, why not use an economic case to promote the same larger policy agenda without a damaging poverty headline? (In fact, the Clinton campaign appears to have included most of the same policy in an earlier announcement about her economic plans.)
  • Why does this matter at all? Maybe it doesn’t. But, I’m afraid it could. And I’d prefer a candidate who is thinking beyond the next primary and stays focused on the goal of building political space and public will for the policy goals. Or at the very least, one who doesn’t take the risk of underming the policy in order to win.


    Some time ago, Rachel Gragg (one of inclusion’s co-founders) co-authored an article outlining a topic we’ve all discussed at length: the advantages of “winning by losing well.” The poverty debate provides a classic example of this imperative not to sacrifice our larger policy goals for the sake of an incremental or different advance, particularly when that advance actually undermines the shared agenda for the long term. By advancing a plan to set a target for cutting poverty, Senator Clinton sets up a problematic future, and one that threatens to undermine the policy goals.

    Let’s assume (for the sake of this posting) that Senator Clinton were to win the nomination. She could then be forced to campaign on her poverty goal in the general election. This would allow opponents to raise the arguments outlined by the Heritage Foundation in response to her announcement last week.

    And if she ended up in the White House, we can expect that some advocates would demand that she make good on her plan to call for a target to cut poverty. And that would likely fail, as we’ve outlined before. In the process – a lot of the policy we need to implement could be undermined by the debate over whether these policies are the ones our government should adopt to “cut poverty”.

No other leading candidate remaining the race has adopted a goal to cut poverty. I hope it stays that way.

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Hillary Clinton's Poor Plan

Friday, February 29, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Senator Clinton announced her plan to cut poverty just days before the Ohio primary.

Why? Really, why does she think this will help her win – or help build public will for the policies she promotes: like a higher minimum wage, pre-K, improving child support collection, etc?

Her plan incorporates lots of ideas we’ve identified and include on our list of new ideas for good jobs: democratic workplaces, health care, paid family leave, etc. She also has a laundry list of additional good ideas that support economic and social mobility: expanding green jobs, more strategies for worker advancement, etc.

It’s so…. not cool…. that she put it all these great ideas under the poverty headline!

Using the poverty banner means it is unlikely that this plan will generate support. While lots of people want to do something about poverty—it’s not a high priority for voters.

I’ve written about this before.

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one we like (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one we don’t (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?

In fact, she gave the Heritage Foundation an opening:

Robert Rector, senior research fellow on welfare and family issues at the Heritage Foundation, says Clinton refuses to even acknowledge the two primary causes of child poverty -- out-of-wedlock births, and parents living on welfare instead of working. "What she wants to do is combat poverty by putting the responsibility on the U.S. taxpayer, who already spends about $450 billion a year fighting poverty," says Rector, "while [at the same time] specifically avoiding the issue of changing the behaviors that are the cause of poverty.”

See the problem?

We present these findings, and more, in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”.

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Responding to Paul Krugman and A New Lens for Policy

Monday, February 18, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Paul Krugman takes on poverty in his column. He’s highlighting new research about the impact of childhood poverty on “the American Dream”.

Unfortunately, while he had strong opinions about the impact of campaign promises on legislative debates over health care after the election, he doesn’t acknowledge what we know about public reaction to use of the language of poverty.

We’ve said it before:

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one that's about our interdependence (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one that's not (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?

We present these findings in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”. We use this powerpoint several times a month (at least) for talks around the country with all kinds of stakeholders – academics, advocates, policymakers, elected officials, students, media, organizers, service providers, etc.

I learn with the audience too. A few weeks ago, I met with a class of NYU law students and one of them suggested some changes in the visual presentation that I promptly adopted.

The week before that, I met with community leaders from across the state of North Carolina. They discussed better ways to present information to decision makers based on the research I’d presented. They decided to illustrate systemic solutions like universal access to health care, retirement options for those without adequate employer-based options, and guaranteed paid sick days. These are three of the ideas identified in our scan on better jobs.

It was thrilling to hear that local leaders believe the ideas from our research also provide the best economic narratives as alternatives to the traditional sympathy storyline.

View “A New Lens on Policy”.

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Edwards' Endorsement: It's Not the Poverty....

Friday, February 15, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Paul Krugman takes on poverty in his column. He’s highlighting new research about the impact of childhood poverty on “the American Dream”.

Unfortunately, while he had strong opinions about the impact of campaign promises on legislative debates over health care after the election, he doesn’t acknowledge what we know about public reaction to use of the language of poverty.

We’ve said it before:

  • The U.S. definition of poverty is out of date and flawed.
  • Public understanding of the causes of and remedies for poverty hinders adoption of the policy solutions we seek to address it.
  • Defining the problem as “poverty” opens the door to a losing scenario in the legislative debate. Media will portray the options as two competing proposals: one that's about our interdependence (comprehensive approach to addressing inequality and economic mobility) and one that's not (solve poverty with marriage and harder work). We already lost that fight in battles over welfare. Why we would we want to engage in it again?

We present these findings in a variety of media. Check out the newest version of The Mobility Agenda’s “New Lens on Policy”. We use this powerpoint several times a month (at least) for talks around the country with all kinds of stakeholders – academics, advocates, policymakers, elected officials, students, media, organizers, service providers, etc.

I learn with the audience too. A few weeks ago, I met with a class of NYU law students and one of them suggested some changes in the visual presentation that I promptly adopted.

The week before that, I met with community leaders from across the state of North Carolina. They discussed better ways to present information to decision makers based on the research I’d presented. They decided to illustrate systemic solutions like universal access to health care, retirement options for those without adequate employer-based options, and guaranteed paid sick days. These are three of the ideas identified in our scan on better jobs.

It was thrilling to hear that local leaders believe the ideas from our research also provide the best economic narratives as alternatives to the traditional sympathy storyline.

View “A New Lens on Policy”.

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Dear Paul Krugman

Thursday, February 14, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Paul Krugman idealizes the democratic process in Clinton, Obama, Insurance (Feb 4, 2008). If Congress adopted policy on merit alone, we would already have guaranteed, quality, affordable health care in this country. And gun control too.

There’s every reason to conclude that proposals sounding like they limit choice —by including something called a “mandate”, for example — will trigger public concerns about government interference and administrative competence. Indeed, even focusing on the “universal” aspect of health care proposals makes people who already have it think about what they would have to give up for others to get it.

We’ve recently had a brief debate about whether words matter in campaigns. Careful consideration about the public conversation that can create the space and public support for guaranteed health care in the future is exactly what’s called for now.

Clinton v. Obama: Do Words Matter?

Sunday, January 06, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

When friends and family ask me what I think about the pending Presidential election, I’ve often said that it won’t much matter which Democrat or Republican wins for policy outcomes over the next four years. That is, it may matter which party wins – but not so much which candidate. This seems particularly true on the Democratic side since the policy differences are minor between candidates and Congress will have an important say on priorities and in any major policy changes.

What matters more is how the President uses his moments on stage to set the tone for the policy debates of the future and to begin the hard work of rebuilding the image of government for our own residents, and of the United States for citizens of the world.

With this in mind, I am able to watch debates with relative ease, ignoring squabbles over minor differences in policy proposals, reading or doing other work with the debate playing in the background.

No wonder then that this exchange between Clinton and Obama toward the end of the New Hampshire debate caught my attention.

Do words matter?

Clinton: So, you know, words are not actions. And as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action.

You know, what we've got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality. I have a long record of doing that, of taking on the very interests that you have just rightly excoriated because of the over-due influence that they have in our government.

....

OBAMA: Look, I think it's easy to be cynical and just say, You know what? It can't be done, because Washington is designed to resist change.

But in fact, there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better.

And I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes; not incremental changes, not small changes.
....

And, you know, so, the truth is, actually, words do inspire, words do help people get involved, words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health-care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy.

Don't discount that power.

Because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't.

I'm running for president because I want to tell them, Yes, we can, and that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.

I understand the point that Clinton makes here. No one wants a President who utters empty promises followed by deeds in the opposite direction. (Compassionate conservatism anyone?) But, neither do I want a President who undervalues the ability of words and message to inspire. Nor do I want a president who fails to understand the damage that can be done by using words that divide us.

Even those who share values and goals will choose different words to express those goals – and some words ARE better than others.

Consider one of President Clinton’s essential themes: If you work hard and play by the rules, you shouldn’t be poor. Who can disagree with this? We can understand the problem with this choice of words after living through the debate over welfare policy and reauthorization of the landmark bill Clinton signed. His choice of words to frame both welfare reform and employment benefits evoked and reinforced a dominant perception of our society – that people are poor precisely because they DO NOT work hard. Consequently, the welfare debate has been over whether or not people are working hard enough, not whether the labor market has jobs that make it possible for workers to escape poverty.

I don’t question whether President Clinton had the right goals. The original Clinton proposal for welfare reform is one I would (and did) support. But, because the legislative debate was conducted in the dominant and problematic frame, there was no way for his multi-faceted and nuanced proposal to prevail over one that focused on behavior and “personal responsibility”.

We’ve learned this lesson the hard way. And now we know to want a President who is thinking about the long-term impact of his (or her!) choice of words…a President who considers not only whether particular words can win the legislative debate of the moment, but who is always considering whether those words will also support a progressive policy agenda with broad appeal in the future.

In the New Hampshire debate, Clinton appeared to dismiss this concept, while Obama wasn’t afraid to defend the importance of words. He might have responded (as he did at other times in the debate) with a laundry list of policies that reflect his ability to “translate talk into action and feeling into reality”. Instead, eloquently and persuasively, he asked us not to discount the power of words.

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Too Many Pundits (for the Poor) are from Mars, Most Readers are from Venus

Wednesday, January 02, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Washington Monthly’s T.A. Frank has written a provocative commentary on how hard it is to write about “our stuff” in a way that generates readers, interest, and policy progress. He’s writing about one columnist in particular, but the point applies to a broad set of writers – especially DC think tank professionals writing for policymakers and print media. The article’s title is pointed: “Why Is Bob Herbert Boring? The perils of punditry for the powerless”.

Frank makes note of the fact that Herbert is often right – and he’s on our “team”. Yet, being right is clearly not enough. Using Frank’s measures, no one pays much attention to what Herbert writes, even though he is on the New York Times op-ed page and there’s hardly a better platform anywhere. Why not more readers and impact? Frank concludes, in part, that Herbert adds too many stats to his stories about real people. Because Frank notes, it is hard, though not impossible, to interest readers in “the lives of those less fortunate”.

Sadly, history and science make a compelling case that most of us are, indeed, hard-pressed to give a damn.

In the 1960s, the economist Thomas Schelling performed research demonstrating that people are more likely to be moved by single victims than by statistics. In 2005, the psychologists Deborah A. Small, George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic found the limits of human compassion to be even more irrational and constrained. In their study, students at a university in Pennsylvania were paid five dollars to complete questionnaires on technology. Enclosed with the questionnaire was a seemingly unrelated letter soliciting donations to a hunger relief organization in Africa.

The study's first conclusion was what the researchers had expected: people are more compassionate when they are told about a specific victim. When respondents were asked to donate money to help feed a seven-year-old African girl named Rokia, they contributed more than twice what they did when just confronted with general statistics on hunger.

But then things got surprising. When Rokia was presented with the statistics, the donations fell by nearly half. Worse still, when the authors asked one set of subjects to perform mathematical calculations and the other set of subjects to describe their feelings when they heard the word "baby," the subjects who'd done math gave only about half as much to Rokia as the ones who'd thought about babies. Apparently, just thinking analytically makes us stingier. The authors of the study concluded that "calculative thought lessens the appeal of an identifiable victim."

That's bad news for Herbert, who's fond of specific tales paired with statistics. Penetrating the sympathy barrier of readers is possible, but it generally requires a lot of words and time, and a columnist is restricted to 700 words twice a week. Even worse, op-ed pages are by nature tilted toward argument. Surrounded by analysis, a column that seeks our compassion is already in unfriendly soil.

Frank doesn’t quite make it to my next point – one that complicates Herbert’s (and our) dilemma still further: Sympathy isn’t what policy entrepreneurs should aim for anyway. (For much more on this point – see our recent report by Matt Nisbet and Meg Bostrom’s research.)

So, if you cannot use data easily, and using real people’s stories inelegantly leaves writers stuck in the ineffective sympathy zone – what should we do?

This is the question we try to answer daily at The Mobility Agenda.

Every time we talk to media, write a report, give a speech, talk to an advocate or community organizer or academic (basically whenever we communicate!), we’re thinking about our audience and how to share information in a style that changes the outcome. Because we’re tired of spending time writing stuff that’s published and then ignored.

We know how to write in ways that reach an audience that already agrees with us. Frank gives well-deserved plugs to Jason DeParle and Katherine Boo. Reading these two has always inspired me to write more and try harder. Yet, it’s not clear that even the very best writing about real people moves readers to support progressive policy change – especially when it’s about poverty (or welfare!). It apparently does serve to energize the already persuaded (like me) to do better and more. But, in fact, it’s increasingly apparent that focusing media stories on the poor hasn’t resulted in enough support for the policy we, or Herbert, or presumably Frank, think would work to address poverty.

Part of our answer: talk about ALL OF US, not just some of us. A fundamental problem for so many advocates for the powerless is their focus on the powerless as a distinct, and somehow different demographic.

This approach isn't working. Taking one of Frank’s specific examples - it shouldn’t be that hard to write (or talk) about a federally supported initiative to expand access to health care. It should be obvious to everyone after the recent health care debate: describing programs as “for” the poor leads to arguments about who is poor enough. That’s not the debate we want and it doesn’t lead to the policy result we believe in (affordable, reliable, quality health care for everyone) anyway!

It's definitely time for pundits (and the rest of us) to try something new. Instead of using our precious energy, time, funding, and media real estate to talk to the already persuaded, let's get the persuadable to join us. Now we just have to figure out how to talk their language.

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