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Why Do So Many Rural Americans Feel Politics is Pointless?

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Of Jennifer Silva’s sample of 108 working-class people, over two-thirds didn’t even vote in the 2016 election. Photo: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

In sociologist Jennifer Silva’s first book, “Coming Up Short,” she interviewed working-class young adults in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Virginia.

Most had a tough time earning decent wages. Many felt like they were in a perpetual state of limbo, unable to reach the traditional markers of adulthood: job, marriage, house and kids. But Silva was surprised to learn that many blamed themselves for their situations and believed that relying on others could only result in disappointment.

After the book was published, it bothered Silva that she never pressed her subjects further on their politics to see how they might be connected to their worldview.

Jennifer Silva. Bucknell

Now, in a new book, “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America,” she has made working-class politics her focus.

Beginning in May 2015, Silva started conducting interviews in a once-thriving coal town in central Pennsylvania, which she calls “Coal Brook.” The timing was prescient: A month after she began her research, Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president.

Silva spent over a year interviewing townspeople. She gained their trust, forged relationships and spent time in their homes and at community meetings. After years of declining prospects under both political parties, some of the townspeople she interviewed were drawn to Trump’s anti-establishment message. But for most, their politics had devolved into an abyss of cynicism that couldn’t even be penetrated by a politician who promised to “fix” everything.

In an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Silva describes a community that is racially diverse, hardworking and politically aware. But its residents are also deeply distrustful and shoulder immense amounts of pain and alienation.


Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to study working-class Americans?

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I experienced some self-doubt and discomfort when I tried to integrate into the world of academia.

In my position between two worlds – growing up with more working-class roots, and then building a professional middle-class life – I would cringe whenever I saw upper-middle-class people treat working-class people with casual condescension or indifference. It sometimes seemed like the very colleagues who most loudly proclaimed their commitment to social justice were the ones treating the administrative assistant like their personal secretary or complaining about the cost of their housekeeper. It made me really skeptical of whether people’s stated political beliefs were even a good predictor of how they treat people with less power and status.

What was the hardest part of the research?

Getting people to open up to me. I wasn’t from the area. This is the kind of place where if you knock on someone’s door, they’re not going to let you in. I started off talking to white people. I’d go to football games and addiction meetings to try to meet people, and I was able to get to be known as “so-and-so’s friend.” Then I realized I wanted to have a non-white group in my book, because there’s been an increase in Latino and black people in the area. So I had to find out how to get this population to trust me because the white population and the minority population don’t overlap very much.

You spent months conducting interviews. Then the election happened, and Trump won. All of a sudden, there was a lot of interest in the very sort of community you had just spent time in. What’s your take on the ensuing media coverage of these small towns?

It seemed like there was one dominant story: older white men, angry and in pain, were feeling bad about not having jobs and blaming racial minorities or foreigners.

And an element of that certainly emerged in my research. But the overall picture was just so much more complex. One of the things that was very striking to me was how much distrust there was. Among everyone I interviewed – white, Latino and black – there was a fierce distrust and hatred of politicians, a suspicion that politicians and big business were basically working together to take away the American Dream. Everyone was very critical of inequality.

So it wasn’t this idea of “dumb white people voting for billionaires because they don’t understand it’s against their interests.” Almost everyone was aware that the system is rigged against poor people. They blamed politicians for refusing to raise wages to a level people can live on. Many wanted higher taxes to support education. I heard a lot of that, across all of the different groups, and I didn’t read a lot of that in the articles about these communities.

You interviewed 108 people and only 37 of them actually voted, with 26 voting for Trump. Of the 41 black or Latino people you spoke with, only four voted. So to me, one of the major stories wasn’t necessarily support for Trump. It was a refusal to participate in politics altogether.

Two-thirds of the sample were nonvoters. They knew the election was happening but they just viewed political participation as pointless. They thought of it as a joke. And they said, “Look at what’s happened in my lifetime, it doesn’t really matter who’s been president.”

One of the critiques I heard a lot was that everything’s about money now. If you have money, your life is good. You can buy anything. But if you don’t have money, the system is stacked against you. I heard that from old white men. I heard that from young black women. And it was interesting, because it’s not untrue, right? If you kill someone and you’re rich you’re more likely to get off.

So I think for them it was almost like, “Well, if we participate, we’re just playing along and pretending. But we’re not naive. We know already that politicians are bought off by corporations. No one actually cares about us.”

There’s that great story in the book where you showed up to an interview wearing your “I voted” sticker.

He laughed at me! Like, “Why would you vote? Are you crazy?”

And yet of those who voted, Trump did emerge as the clear favorite.

Well, Trump and Bernie Sanders. But Sanders wasn’t an option in the end. The general take on Trump was, “We like Trump’s personality, we like his aggressiveness, we like how he doesn’t care about the rules.” And then they liked Bernie Sanders for his authenticity and his heart. But for many who even ended up voting for Trump, they still didn’t think it would matter if they voted.

Where does this disillusionment come from?

There’s a sense of betrayal by a number of social institutions – education, the workplace, the military – all of these things that they thought they could trust, but, for one reason or another, ended up disappointing them.

So they turned inward. No one was really looking for external collective strategies changing the world. Many wanted to simply prove that they didn’t have to rely on other people. There was this sense that any kind of redemption is only going to come out of your own efforts. And then you’ll see some blame other people who don’t seem to support themselves.

Before and after the 2016 election, J.D. Vance, with the publication of his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” was held up in the mainstream media as an oracle for dispossessed rural Americans. But in your book, you vehemently disagree with his worldview.

Vance seemed to look at other people in his community and think that the reason they were suffering was because of their own choices – that they weren’t really strong enough to face the truth about themselves, that they had to stop blaming the government and corporations and actually take responsibility.

And that just wasn’t the story that I heard. I heard a lot of self-blame and a lot of people who wanted to take responsibility for their own fate. There was a lot of soul searching and a lot of pain. Vance makes it seem like everyone just needs to be like him – a lone hero who escapes his difficult past on his own. It’s not that simple or easy.

Can the pain people feel be used as a bridge to bring people together? That’s how I end my book. And I saw signs of it. Families suffering from addiction were coming together and wondering, how can we change the ways that doctors prescribe medicine? Or how can we challenge pharmaceutical companies to stop making these medications that get our children addicted? Can we get the police to help addicts instead of arresting them?

That sounds like the stirrings of political mobilization. But what’s the biggest obstacle that’s preventing working-class voters from organizing en masse?

I think that it’s the absence of what you could call “mediating institutions.” The people in my book have a lot of critical and smart ideas. But they don’t have a lot of ways to actually connect their individual voices. So they don’t have a church group or a club that they would join that would then give them political tools or a louder voice. And I don’t even know if they would join one if these did exist, because of their distrust of institutions. So it just ends up being turned inward rather than outward.

Within academia, what are some of the most common misconceptions you encounter when it comes to working-class politics?

I have heard some liberal academics talk about how self-defeating and misinformed working-class white people are. They seem to believe that if these people just knew the facts, they would change their votes immediately. Or they dismiss all working-class white people as angry and racist.

The working-class people I met were often radically critical of inequality and deeply skeptical about whether we live in a meritocracy. It was important to me to show that the people in my book of all races are creative and thoughtful – that they arrive at their positions by piecing together their histories and experiences in meaningful ways.

Sometimes these ways are destructive and divisive, and sometimes they have the potential to be transformative and healing.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]

Nick Lehr, Arts + Culture Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Commentary: As The Coal Industry Shrinks, Miners Deserve a Just Transition – Here’s What It Should Include

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Coal miners return on a buggy after working a shift underground at the Perkins Branch Coal Mine in Cumberland, Oct. 15, 2014. Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman

Murray Energy, one of the biggest private U.S. coal companies, has become the fifth coal company to file for bankruptcy in 2019. Union leaders and many elected officials worry that in addition to the 7,000 miners on Murray’s payroll, this step could threaten the solvency of the United Mine Workers of America pension fund, which supports over 100,000 retired miners and fully vested workers.

Whether people support or oppose the Trump administration’s efforts to prop up the coal industry, one point of agreement is that shifting from coal to cleaner fuels threatens struggling coal-dependent communities. Murray Energy’s bankruptcy is the latest reminder that it is past time to discuss a just transition for coal miners.

My legal scholarship examines environmental decision-making processes, with a focus on law and the urban-rural divide. In my recent research, I’ve dug into the origin and meaning of the idea of a just transition for workers.

My findings suggest that there is a strong ethical case for pursuing just transitions through policy. The challenge is to ensure that these policies nurture programs and institutions with lasting effects, rather than merely offering short-term band-aids.

More than half of the U.S. coal mines operating in 2008 have closed. EIA

What is a just transition?

There is no single definition of a just transition, but in the coal context, it generally means finding alternative ways to support struggling communities that are losing their traditional livelihoods.

The concept was popularized in the 1970s by progressive labor activist Tony Mazzocchi, who worked in the auto, steel and construction industries before becoming an organizer. He believed that workers who had contributed to the public welfare through hazardous work deserved help in transitioning away from their difficult jobs. He first called for “full income and benefits for life” for such workers, but eventually changed his demand to four years of income and education benefits. Even then, his efforts met substantial opposition.

Mazzochi had ties to labor and the environmental movements, and his activism blended these concerns. Today scholars are embracing the idea that government should consider the economic impacts of transitions such as the shift to low-carbon fuels, especially when workers are displaced by public initiatives.

In my view, it’s unfortunate that it has taken so long for mainstream attention to focus on the fate of coal workers. For communities dependent on fossil fuels, particularly in regions like Appalachia with few other major industries, today’s job losses are just the latest phase of a long decline.

No simple formula

There is no road map for transitioning communities away from coal, but there are lessons from history. For example, American workers faced losses from international competition when the U.S. joined liberalized trade agreements in the second half of the 20th century.

In response, Congress passed legislation in 1974 that established the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which still operates today. It provides aid primarily to factory workers who can show that they have lost jobs or wages because of increased international competition. Eligible workers petition the U.S. Department of Labor for benefits administered through state agencies, including cash payments, retraining and assistance with relocation and job searches.

However, research shows that even with this support, affected workers were substantially worse off than they had been before the shift in trade policy. Scholars have criticized trade adjustment programs as an ineffective band-aid. In 2008 one of the program’s directors called it “too little assistance too late to those in need.”

Funding for environmental cleanup and business development can help Appalachian communities diversify away from coal.

Another example, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, was developed in connection with the decision to provide federal protection for the Northern spotted owl. Officials recognized that restrictions on logging would hurt the Pacific Northwest timber industry, which was already declining.

The plan provided direct federal subsidies to traditional timber counties to offset logging reductions on public lands. However, these payments have been declining since 2006, contributing to a fiscal crunch in rural Oregon. Local opposition to tax increases, which could support local government services and community planning, hasn’t helped.

Another initiative, the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, achieved more mixed results. In 1998 the four largest U.S. tobacco companies executed a major legal settlement with states suing them to recover tobacco-related health costs. The agreement required tobacco companies to provide billions of dollars in economic assistance to farmers to ease their transition away from growing tobacco.

Each participating farmer received an average of US$17,000 through the program, which ran from 2005 to 2014. The top 10 percent of recipients received 75 percent of the payments. Some assessments concluded that these cash injections boosted struggling rural communities. But farmers arguably have more autonomy than many other kinds of workers, since they can opt to grow different crops, so this example may have limited relevance for coal miners.

County economic status in Appalachia, fiscal year 2020. Appalachian Regional Commission, CC BY-ND

Recent transition aid for coal communities

The most defined federal effort so far to help coal communities economically is the POWER Plan, launched by the Obama administration. This program directs funds into Appalachian communities to assist displaced workers, build regional institutions’ capacity and fund economic development programs.

From 2015 through 2019 the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency supported by federal, state and local governments, has invested over $190 million in 239 projects across Appalachia. Although President Trump often calls himself a friend to coal miners, his first budget request proposed terminating the commission. Congressional supporters restored its funding.

It is popular for commentators to propose initiatives such as retraining coal workers for solar or natural gas jobs. In my view, this approach is simplistic: A just transition should focus on sustainably rebuilding regional economies, and should be informed by input from people who are affected.

Subsidies to local governments and benefits for individuals are a start but should be better funded and implemented than trade adjustment assistance. They should build local institutions, such as schools and planning agencies, that can contribute to sustainable economic diversification – something the Northwest Forest Plan failed to do. And they should distribute benefits more equitably than the compensation program for tobacco farmers.

Along with job retraining programs, POWER is funding infrastructure development, public services and new educational institutions. But a just transition will require substantial resources and effort. It remains to be seen whether federal efforts will rise to the challenge.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Ann Eisenberg, Assistant Professor of Law, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Climate Activism Could Be Swaying Public Opinion In The US

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The March for Science on April 22, 2017 combined calls for scientific integrity and climate action. Photo: Kevin Wolf/AP

Climate activists walked out of classrooms and workplaces in more than 150 countries on Friday, Sept. 20 to demand stronger action on climate change. Mass mobilizations like this have become increasingly common in recent years.

I’m a scholar of environmental communication who examines how people become engaged with solving dilemmas such as climate change, and how activism motivates others to take action. A new study I worked on suggests that large rallies, such as this youth-led Climate Strike, could be influencing public opinion.

Conflicting signs

For anyone in the U.S. who has been following climate change news for years, it could be easy to conclude that these protests don’t have an impact. After all, no major environmental legislation has been signed into law in this country in decades.

Further, in 2016 a near-majority of U.S. voters elected a president who rejects the scientific evidence on climate change.

On the other hand, concern about climate change is rising. So is media coverage about global warming, notably including CNN’s seven-hour town hall on the topic with 10 Democratic presidential candidates.

To see whether rallies, such as the Global Climate Strike are contributing to this change in public opinion in a measurable way, I partnered with Pennsylvania State University psychologist Janet K. Swim and Michael L. Lengieza, a graduate student. We collected public opinion data before and after major protests.

Seeing activists in a less negative light

We conducted surveys to assess public opinion before and after the March for Science – which had a wide-ranging agenda that included climate change – and the 2017 People’s Climate March, which took place on back-to-back Saturdays in April 2017. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the main protests in Washington, as affiliated marches occurred in other cities in the U.S. and around the world.

Nearly 600 people around the country, including some who had heard very little or even nothing at all about the mobilizations, answered our series of detailed questions. We tried to gauge their perceptions of climate activists and faith in humanity’s ability to come together on issues like climate change.

Half of the survey-takers completed their survey right before the first protest and the other half did it after the second one. Both groups represented broad ranges in age, education level and political beliefs.

The responses suggested that many Americans may have changed their opinion about the climate change movement around that time – in the spring of 2017.

For instance, the percentage who viewed climate activists as “aggressive” fell by 10 percentage points, from 74 percent to 64 percent. Similarly, survey respondents viewed activists as less “arrogant” and “dictatorial” after the protests occurred.

We consider this finding important because other research has suggested that people who view climate activists in this negative manner are more motivated to speak out against policies aimed at slowing the pace of global warming, such as the two carbon tax initiatives that voters have rejected in Washington state despite its Democratic majority.

Feeling less pessimistic about the future

Although most survey-takers said they had heard about the protests, few actually knew someone who had participated in one. Wondering whether the way that media covered these events might influence how people reacted, we looked into whether Americans who prefer liberal-leaning media outlets, such as MSNBC, reacted differently than those who rely on conservative-leaning media, such as Fox News.

We detected some interesting and unexpected patterns.

Before we looked at the data, we thought that differences in the media coverage might further the political polarization of climate change. We were surprised when we saw that the marches appeared to have the opposite effect.

In particular, the protests may have made consumers of conservative-leaning news more hopeful. Before them, consumers of conservative-leaning news were more likely to say they doubted the ability of humanity to work together on big problems like climate change.

After the marches, fewer people of all kinds expressed pessimism. In particular, consumers of conservative media became less likely to agree to statements like this one: “People are too selfish to cooperate and to fix big problems.” Before the protests, 60 percent of them agreed with that statement. Afterward, only 45 percent did.

The limits to this influence

Even so, the mobilizations did not seem to sway public opinion in every way that the organizers might have hoped. In particular, despite the large numbers participating, the two waves of protests did not appear to have any measurable impact on convincing Americans that taking community action on climate change was a normal or common thing for people to do.

Specifically, there was no change in the perceived number of people in their community or in the entire country that survey-takers believed engaged in collective action, such as environmental activism or voting for politicians that support environmental issues.

We suspect the people we surveyed did not consider the marchers to be similar to average people – like themselves.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see whether these shifts in public perceptions translate into shifts in consumer purchasing habits and public policy.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Nathaniel Geiger, Assistant Professor of Communication Science, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Is Rural America Having a Moment in Democratic Policy Proposals?

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At the Iowa State Fair, candidates were everywhere. Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr, Creative Commons

The 2020 Presidential election is not likely to hinge on nuanced rural policy positions and party platforms. That doesn’t seem to matter to the women and men running for the Democratic nomination, many of whom are campaigning hard for big investments and jobs in rural infrastructure, agriculture, clean energy and health care.

When it comes to presidential elections, many people feel that rural issues get ignored . Mainstream media coverage of campaigns and voter opinion tends to focus on the horserace between political parties, geographic divisions and the moving weathervane of “electability.” Rural topics, with the exception of commercial and corporate agriculture, traditionally don’t get much mention.

Things seems different this year. Last week I spent a lot of time reading and comparing statements and policy positions among the diverse field of Democratic candidates. Unlike any time I’ve seen in 20 years of rural advocacy and economic development work, many of the candidates are developing serious and innovative rural policy ideas that deserve more attention.

A large number of campaigns are embracing infrastructure and telecommunications improvements in rural communities, for instance, and are trying to differentiate themselves through specific budget and policy goals. Numerous candidates are calling for aggressive changes in the health-care sector to address a crisis in rural health care facilities and availability. Most of them support agricultural reforms and conservation programs that would decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

As we were compiling our initial set of candidate position reporting at the Daily Yonder, there was a flurry of activity on rural issues just last Wednesday and Thursday. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) all released comprehensive, detailed rural economic development platforms while campaigning in rural Iowa. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill designed to address climate change through conservation-based farming practices, renewing the Civilian Conservation Corps and scaling up clean energy systems in rural communities. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, IN) unveiled his plan for improving rural healthcare and later released a comprehensive rural-policy plan.

A few of the innovative proposals that stick out for innovation and scope include the following:

  • ARPA-Ag, a science and innovation platform to decrease greenhouse gas emission from agriculture, Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Modeled after the U. S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the public-sector research and development initiative that helped create the internet and supercomputers, and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E that led to clean energy innovations during the Obama Administration, Inslee’s ARPA-Ag would attempt to decarbonize agriculture.  ARPA-Ag would expandd federal investment in “research, development, demonstration and deployment” of climate-friendly farming practices, while also reducing climate emission from the agricultural input sector. Inslee would also create a Next-Generation Clean Energy Extension Service to share the results, knowledge and resources for participating in ARPA-Ag and related efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.

Warren’s $85 billion rural broadband proposal states that, “One of the best tools for unlocking economic opportunity and advances in health care, like telemedicine, is access to reliable, high-speed Internet.” The package includes funding, incentives and regulatory changes that will allow public sector internet providers to compete head-to-head with private services. In addition, funding will be available to expand service to rural communities currently being ignored by the private sector. Eligible entities will be local governments, Native American tribes, rural electric cooperatives and rural telephone cooperatives among others.  Warren’s plan is to set-aside at least $5 billion funding for Native American tribal governments.  The $85 billion broadband plan seeks to address the rural internet access gap. “According to the FCC, in 2017, 26.4% of people living in rural areas and 32.1% of people living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps), compared to 1.7% in urban areas,” Warren’s plan states.

  • Rural Future Partnership Fund,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand is proposing $50 billion in public financing to fund multi-year, flexible, block grants to local communities with comprehensive rural revitalization strategies. Funds would be available for rural water systems, affordable housing, local food efforts, rural entrepreneurship and other rural economic development needs. The funding will target projects in rural communities with a history of persistent poverty, along with prioritizing cooperatively-owned enterprises. Gillibrand’s rural economic development plans also include the creation of a “Rural Future Corps” that identifies and trains rural young people and public servants, as well as supporting arts and cultural heritage-based efforts at job creation and local economic development.

REAP, the Renewable Energy for America Program, is a popular grant and loan program that supports installation and operation of renewable energy systems serving farmers and rural small business owners. Senator Booker recently proposed a $1 billion expansion of REAP as part of his Climate Stewardship Act. The program, in operation since 2009 with limited budgets averaging from $10-$50 million per year, has already been responsible for more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of renewable electricity production by participants, according to USDA. The Booker REAP expansion would provide a short-term boost to the already growing rural deployment of solar, wind and geothermal energy production. REAP expansion would likely result in huge increases in rural solar installations and energy efficiency improvements for farmers and rural small businesses throughout the nation.

I don’t want to pretend that a rural policy position paper is going to lead to the presidency, let alone get passed and implemented. Bold, aggressive policy proposals to expand rural economic development like these face a long and politically driven set of challenges.

The coalition of limited government activists, tax-cut proponents and white Christian conservatives that make up the bulk of the Republican Party are not likely to jump for joy. Within the Democratic Party, there is a large contingent of voices that repeatedly call for caution, moderation and fiscal conservatism. “How are we going to pay for it?” is often the mantra of the pundit and lobbyist class.

Still, while partisan and electoral politics are an ever-present barrier, rural people and organizations should take note that their consistent calls for more funding, resources and attention are working. Huge investments in rural broadband have been embraced by all of the Democrats in the race. (Broadband is one of the few rural development areas that the Trump administration has also supported.) Nearly all the candidates have called for aggressive antitrust action to curtail the market power of corporate agribusiness, a clear rejection of the hands-off approach during the Obama administration. The rural hospital closure crisis is being mentioned on the nationally televised debate stage. The climate crisis is being treated as a serious issue, with a “just transition” to cleaner agriculture, forestry and mining practices in the spotlight.

I’m not sure how to take these developments other than to report them as words on the page. Electoral politics, in my opinion, is all-too-often an incredibly important but ultimately frustrating popularity contest void of actual substance. Perhaps 2020 is going to be different, even if the innovative ideas for improving economies and quality-of-life in rural America is coming from the party that most mainstream political pundits describe as “urban.” Stay tuned.

Bryce Oates covers federal rural policy for the Daily Yonder.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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