2010 Economy Changed Many Americans' Lives
TONY COX, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
America's Great Recession officially ended in September, but the still-lagging economy hasn't made much hasn't made life much easier. High unemployment continues to force many Americans into difficult decisions on small and sometimes large scales. And what are people doing to get by? And what is the country's economic outlook?
President Obama just announced a two-year freeze on federal wages, another in a series of signs that things aren't getting better fast enough.
New York Times labor and workplace correspondent Steven Greenhouse is here to help us take the nation's economic temperature.
What are some of the significant changes the economy has forced you to make this year that you hadn't foreseen? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the hour, questions and answers on the new recommendations on vitamin D. But first, Steven Greenhouse joins me right here in Studio A. Steven, nice to have you.
Mr. STEVEN GREENHOUSE (New York Times): Nice to be here, Tony.
COX: Once again, I should say - 2010, let's begin there, almost over. What were the big changes Americans felt in the economy in 2010? And before you answer, maybe that's an assumption that shouldn't even be made, that there were changes.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Well, in ways, the big change, Tony, was that people were expecting things to get better early in the year, and then the economy really didn't go very, you know, didn't go very far, didn't improve nearly as much as they hoped.
I think maybe the big change is declining expectations. We're about to enter December, and the recession began almost exactly three years ago, in December of '07. So here we are having gone, you know, nearly 36 months with the economy kind of in the dumps.
And you know, early this year the economy seemed to be picking up a bit. People were gaining confidence. And then in the spring the economy stumbled again, stagnated again, and I could feel when I'm, you know, traveling around the country, interviewing people, that, you know, people seem to have lost not all hope but lost some hope, lost a lot of hope compared with early this year.
They keep wanting things to get better, but they still see the unemployment rate pretty high, 9.6 percent. You know, some people have had to give up their homes because of foreclosure and moved in with their sister or their aunt.
And I think, you know, Americans are generally an optimistic people. And what's very weird now, Tony, is that a lot of people have lost that optimism. They're saying things are not going to get better. The country's on the wrong track. Things will be worse for my kids.
COX: That was going to be my question, whether or not we know there's a high level of frustration that people are feeling, but whether or not that has shifted into pessimism. Has it?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes and no. I mean, I think people are feeling pessimistic about the direction of the nation. I think they feel that the government isn't doing enough to turn things around. They feel businesses aren't doing enough hiring.
I think a lot of them, though, are still somewhat optimistic about, you know, their family. They think their unemployed 21-year-old out of college is going to find a job two months from now. They think, you know, the father whose been out of work for three months or five months will somehow find something. But it ain't easy. There are still, you know, five people looking for work for every job opening.
COX: You know, speaking of that, there are some people who for sure are going to be very pessimistic, frustrated, unhappy at the stroke of midnight tonight, as their unemployment benefits that they had hoped to extend beyond where they had already been extended are going to be over.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Some extended unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire tonight; 120,000 people who are unemployed will lose their benefits 1.2 million, 1.2 million will lose their benefits at once. And in another month, another 800,000 will lose their unemployment benefits. So that means within a month two million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits.
And this will be the first time, I believe, in our nation's history when unemployment was over in modern American history when unemployment was over, well over seven percent and we were cutting off extended unemployment benefits for people.
COX: Now, we have asked people to call us and tell us their stories, how they are coping or surviving or whatever it is they are doing and how the economy has whipsawed them this year.
Let's go to our first caller. This is Lisa from St. George, Utah. Lisa, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Hello, Lisa.
LISA (Caller): Yes, hi.
COX: Hi, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
LISA: Thank you.
COX: Did you have a question? Go ahead.
LISA: Well, I was just recently laid off after working for the same organization for 10 years. And I had to go to my bank and say, listen, you know, I bought this car, I, you know, I've got this credit, I'm going to have to ask for a loan reduction, and because I can't afford this payment right now.
And it was so humiliating for me because I had good credit and I've never been late on payments, and I've been you know, I've been with the same job for 10 years. They had no reason not to trust me when I gave me the loan, you know?
And it was it's been really hard. My daughters, when I came home from work and said I'd been let go, they said: What's going to happen to us? And it's been kind of everybody's resetting their thinking at home. I'm a single parent, and so it's pretty stressful.
COX: That's a very interesting word. Lisa, thank you for the call. She said resetting. That's an interesting word, but a lot of people are doing that, arent they?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: I think a lot of people who had steady jobs, who thought they were doing quite well, who were sort of living the American dream, all of a sudden get laid off and they think, wow, this happened to me and I have to rethink my future, I have to reset things.
I want to want to say to Lisa, as I, you know, I sometimes talk to groups of unemployed people, you know, you shouldn't feel guilty that you were laid off. You know, there's this big economy. There's a lot of churning. You know, try to remain optimistic. You know, put your nose to the grindstone and really try to find another job.
Hopefully the employer that laid you off maybe in two months will need some more workers and might call you back. But don't give up.
COX: I want to go back to this concept of resetting, if I can, with you, Steven. There are people who have been fired from a job with a very specific trade, like architecture, for example, and they're now back on the job market. How have those workers coped with finding a job that is outside of their skill set?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: I feel like architecture was, you know, probably booming three years ago during the construction boom. And there aren't nearly as many construction workers as there were during the boom. There aren't nearly as many architects needed right now.
And I'm seeing a lot of people who are, you know, have had to rethink what they're going to do with their lives, you know, to use the word reset, Lisa's word. And you know, some go back to school. They get an MBA. They hope they'll get a, say, mark-, you know, marketing job, or they a lot of people are studying in health care.
Nursing is a field a lot of people are pursuing because there's still a shortage of nurses. I speak to a lot of people who had been in manufacturing, laid off, you know, by auto companies or other companies. And they don't think many manufacturing jobs are going to come back. And they think, well, health care jobs, hospitals are never going to move to China. So why don't I study for a job in health care?
And some start, you know, with very low-level health care jobs like a nurse's aide, and then they continue studying, and then they get jobs, you know, as a, say, physical therapist or blood-pressure tester, phlebotomist. And then some study all the way up to become a nurse.
COX: I imagine you have heard incredible stories as you have worked and traveled around the country talking to people who, like Lisa and like our next caller in a couple of seconds, are really scrapping to try to make ends meet.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: One of the most touching stories, you know, people I've interviewed - there was a woman who, you know, a woman who ran a factory line for Chrysler, and she was laid off - you know, she managed, you know, a line with, you know, a few hundred people, and she got laid off.
And she says, well, I'm not going to get a job ever again in the auto industry. And she went to a community college, took a course to become a certified nurse's assistant, which pays you know, she must have been making 70, 80 thousand. Now she's making, like, $13 an hour, 26,000 a year.
And she's not complaining. She says: I have to start over. I have to reset. I'm going to do this job. I'm going to become a nurse. You know, first I'll do this. Then I'll go back to school and become a nurse, so I'll get a Master's in nursing. And she's confident that someday she'll be a nursing manager, making more than she did working, you know, for Chrysler.
COX: All right, let's take another call. This is is it Mariah(ph) from Boise?
MARIAH (Caller): Yes.
COX: Hi, Mariah, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
COX: Mariah, you wanted to say something?
MARIAH: Well, you were talking about people who perhaps had to make decisions that they didn't think they'd be making. And I'm a 39-year-old professional woman who was laid off from an organization in June, have been unable to find a job and seriously considering moving back in with my mother, who is in her 70s.
COX: I would think thank you very much for that, and good luck also, if that turns out to be what you need and have to do. I would think that that's not an uncommon thing at all, Steven, people moving in with family in order to survive.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes, that is very common. When we were a less prosperous nation, a lot of people, a lot more people used to live with their parents. Now a lot of - you know, big change over the past few years is kids are graduating from college can't find a job and they're moving back in with their parents much more than before.
And I realize for Mariah at the age of 39, it's not easy, but, you know, maybe your mother needs some help at home, and maybe it's a good thing that you're heading back to hearth and home, you know, at this point.
COX: Let's take another call. This one is Jenny(ph) from Jacksonville, Florida. Jenny, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JENNY (Caller): Thank you. I just wanted to share that I'm a 20-year Navy veteran, and I went to school and became a teacher here in the Jacksonville area. And I walked away from teaching to homeschool my son at the worst time, I guess, as far as the economy, and it took me over a year to find a job.
And as a 20-year disabled vet, and having a Bachelor's degree in education, I've had to settle for a, you know, an $8-an-hour physical labor job. Thank goodness I'm in good physical shape.
But I've had to downsize to a very small home and give up air conditioning and heating so my son and I can eat. And we're learning to live simply. And it's a blessing, but it's very frustrating because I'm not getting younger, and I'm widowed, and it's scary.
I'm very - I'm scared of the future. Am I going to be able to maintain my lifestyle, which is very simple, on $25,000 a year?
COX: I understand. Thank you for the call. It's a tough situation that you are describing. Plus, it's going to be freezing, as we understand it, in Jacksonville tonight.
We're going to talk some more with people who are calling in, and I want to ask you, Steven, some more questions about what you have experienced and some more ideas about what the country is going through and what we can perhaps look forward to.
What are some of the significant changes the economy has forced you to make this year, you the listener, that you hadn't foreseen? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email is email@example.com. We'll talk more with Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times in just a moment. I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Tony Cox.
We are talking about what has changed in the economy this year and what hasn't for you. What are some of the significant changes the economy has forced you to make this year that you had not foreseen? Tell us your story.
Our number, 800-989-8255, the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Steven Greenhouse is our guest, labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times, also author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker."
Steven, some of these calls are, they're heart-wrenching to hear what people are having to do. But the thing that I'm hearing, and we're going to go to another call in just a second, is that people are finding a way. I guess they don't have any choice.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: It's, you know, Jenny of Jacksonville, her story's very sad. Here's someone who is a veteran, who served the nation for a long time. She trained to be a teacher when, I guess at the time when so many people were saying become teachers, we have to improve the nation's schools.
And Jenny, in ways, did everything right. And here she is with a, you know, a job paying I guess it's $8 an hour. And it's very, very hard to get by on $8 an hour.
You know, I know a lot of employers, Jenny, are giving preferences to veterans, and hopefully, you might be able to link up with those, you know, one of those employers and get something that pays somewhat more. But, you know, it's not an easy time.
COX: Absolutely. Let's talk to Leanne(ph) from Thomasville, Georgia. Leanne, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
LEANNE (Caller): Hi, I love your show.
COX: Thank you.
LEANNE: Well, I was just going to say that just a few days shy of a year ago, I was laid off from my job of seven years, and it was a small Internet business.
And it caught me by surprise because I thought things were going smoothly. And, well, I struggled for a while. I was able to get unemployment but not, you know, it doesn't it didn't cover the bills. And, well, you'd be surprised at the things you can cut back on, you know.
My credit went down the drain because, you know, the first bills had to come first and, you know, necessities. You can eat a lot of ramen noodles. I learned that.
But I guess the upside to it is that I started back, started school up again, and I had it's a dream that I wanted to pursue for a long time, to be an anesthesiologist's assistant. And I'm actually about to graduate in about a year. So I guess that's the upside.
COX: Good for you. Well, good for you, and thank you very much, Leanne, for the call. Good luck, and we hope everything works out for you.
Steven, I have a question for you. And I want to give you the question, and then I want to go to a caller and come back for your answer, and it's this: Are there parts of the country where this is being felt much worse and where people are having to struggle much more than they are in other parts?
Now, before you answer that, let's take this let me read something to you that we just got. This is an email. This is from Larry(ph), and Larry says: The commercial fishing village where I live is in bad shape. The restaurants are closing due to no business, and the families of fishermen are in bad shape.
I myself see the children of these folks are stressed by the family situation. Levi County, Florida is 13 percent unemployment. Don't forget these hardworking folks. BP - this is according to this person: Don't forget these hardworking folks. BP has killed the economic power of the area. The overall downfall of the stock market was bad, but this is way worse due to the lack of folks wanting Gulf fish. This is Larry from Cedar Key, Florida.
I would think, and you can tell me whether this is accurate or not, Steven, that an area like that might be harder hit than other parts of the country.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Oh, absolutely, Tony. You know, the parts of the country that had the biggest boom for a while, like Nevada, which had a, you know, humongous construction boom, and, you know, real estate prices in Las Vegas were going through the roof when the housing boom crashed. And Nevada was hit worse, perhaps than any other state. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
Florida also had a huge housing boom. It's hurting. And compound, you know, the housing bust in Florida with the BP mess, and certainly the BP spill is hurting, you know, the Gulf Coast of Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
And another state that's really hurting, of course, is Michigan because it's suffering, you know, it's been hurting for years from the decline of manufacturing, especially auto manufacturing. Then there was their huge bust, near bankruptcy, of General Motors and Chrysler two or three years ago. And Michigan has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation.
So there are pockets and whole states around the country that are really hurting.
COX: Things are tough. I'm going to take a call from Nashville in a second. But to follow up that point about differences in terms of unemployment, we would be remiss, I think, if we didn't talk about the fact that there are racial differences in unemployment, as well, and that while the last caller was talking about 13 percent unemployment in his portion of the country, I think African-Americans would look at a 13 percent unemployment rate and say oh, wow, we're doing a lot better.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: The unemployment rate for African-Americans is around 16 percent. For Hispanics, it's around 12 percent. For teenagers, it's up around 20 percent. For African-American teenagers, it's up around 40 percent.
So there are some pockets of the population, geographic pockets like, you know, probably the Northwest Coast of Florida and, you know, pockets like African-American youths or teenagers or kids who don't graduate from high school who, you know, have it really, really bad.
And, you know, the nation and the economy really has to pick up with some momentum before those lagging pockets are really lifted, as well.
COX: Let's go to Nashville, Tennessee. This is Dina(ph). Dina, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DINA (Caller): Welcome. I just wanted to speak to the fact that all those unemployment rates look like a wonderful thing, as long as you're not a person with a disability. I think the last number I heard in terms of employment and disability is at 83 percent unemployment rate.
And I have a son who just graduated high school less than six months ago. And the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation will not pay for the highly specialized program he needs to get through college.
They are offering us the state rate, which is $18,000 a year less than what the private program requires, but it isn't as though I'm choosing the best program I can get. It's the only program that's appropriate for his needs.
And I'm a person who's just coming off of disability, making under $20,000 a year. Last year, I only made $2,000 because I was just starting my private practice, working with exactly this population, individuals with autism.
And so, you know, the bottom line is if you can't afford to pay for a private program, your child is destined not to go to college whatsoever because the state agencies are so depleted in funding that they can't support these students achieving a reasonable potential, not even their best potential.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is incomprehensible.
COX: Yeah. Dina, let me stop you just so that we can get thank you for the call, by the way. Let me get you to respond to that. She mentioned another group, the disabled. We didn't also talk about those who are, you know, over 50 who are still, you know, vital and still trying to work, in many cases.
So what about these I don't want to call them subgroups of the overall population but these various, identifiable pockets who are having particular and peculiar problems when it comes to getting employment?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: I'm sorry, Dina. You know, when the economy is bad, when unemployment is as high as it is, at 9.6 percent, you know, groups that are you know, that traditionally have an especially hard time finding a job will find, you know, will be that much worse off. The vulnerable end up much, you know, worse off.
I don't know what disability your child has. I know, you know, some physically disabled people can do, you know, wonderfully as, you know, computer programmers. You know, maybe there are but I guess schooling, as you say, is extremely important.
You know, maybe you'll be able to find a school that will provide a scholarship to your son or discount tuition to your son, I think it's your son, not daughter.
And, you know, it's not easy, and, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats. And, you know, we have to hope for a strong economic recovery, which will create, you know, a lot more jobs.
You know, Tony mentioned the over-50 crowd. One of the - you know, one of the difficult things going on now is all these people who hoped to retire say at age 62 or 65, you know, are seeing their, have seen their retirement a lot of them have seen their retirement savings dive. So they're staying in the workforce until the age of 68 or 70, 72.
COX: Or they're trying to.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Or they're trying to. And that makes it harder for people to enter the workforce whether, you know, people right out of high school or people with disabilities. So there's, like, there are blockages in the employment market nowadays that's making it harder for, you know, people to even find their first jobs.
COX: Let's put this in some historical perspective if we can, Steven. We've had recessions before. Back during the Reagan administration was the last major one. But have we ever been in a circumstance, not the Great Depression, obviously, but have we ever been in a modern-day circumstances comparable to where we are now economically?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Not really, Tony. You know, we had a very bad recession in 1981, '82, when President Reagan, you know, had just entered office. And it was clear what the cause of that recession was.
The inflation rate was extremely high in 1979 and 1980. The Federal Reserve Bank under Paul Volcker said we're going to, you know, push up unemployment rates very, very high to - push up inflation rates very, very high to crack down on inflation.
And, you know, the Volcker Federal Reserve, you know, did a very, very good job pulling down inflation, but they created a very serious recession and the unemployment rate went over 10 percent. And, but once inflation was...
COX: Under control.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: ...you know, was brought under control, Paul Volcker, the Fed stepped on the accelerator, they cut interest rates very, very seriously and that enabled the economy to really take off under President Reagan.
Now, we've had this housing bust and this, you know, this credit crisis, and there's not, you know, the Federal Reserve just can't, you know, step on the accelerator and fix things because, you know, banks have so many problems, there's so many foreclosures, unemployment is so high that it's really much, much harder to, you know, turn things around.
And I read something, you know, very good saying that, you know, FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had the good luck of being - of coming into office three years after the Depression started, so people could say it's not FDR's fault, it's not the Democrat's fault, it's Herbert Hoover's fault.
You know, President Obama had the bad luck in ways of coming into office just a few months after, you know, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the recession really picked up steam. And it was, you know, now people are saying it's your fault, you know, Obama. You are - you know, they think he was in office when the Lehman collapse happened. And you need a few years to really get out of such a deep economic trough.
COX: That was going to be my next question. In fact, hold on to your answer because I want to pursue that with you a little deeper in terms of how long we are likely to remain in this cycle and whether or not the stories that we are hearing from our listeners - and we're going to hear another one in just a minute - does this permanently change their behavior in terms of how they spend, how they work, how they pursue jobs? Are we all sort of downsizing our expectations? I want to get to that in just a moment.
We are talking about the economy and the decisions that you have been forced to make just to get by. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Here's a email that we just got. This is from Fred. My wife graduated with a PhD in cell biology from Berkeley exactly two years ago and is still looking for work, with an exclamation point. Even with all the biotech jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, every job she's applying for is receiving many applicants.
So when a biotech engineer can't even get a job, things have - things, Steven, must really be bad.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes, things are not good. You know, it sounds as if Fred's wife should be getting a job. And when you have that - you know, those credentials, in theory, you know, you should be able to get something. But there is always some bad luck in (unintelligible)
COX: (Unintelligible) growth, that's supposed to be a growth industry, isn't it?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes. Yeah. Sometimes, just...
COX: Yeah That...
Mr. GREENHOUSE: ...the luck doesn't fall your way.
COX: That and 25 cents will get you - well, it won't even get you a cup of coffee anymore.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yeah.
COX: Let's take another call. Let's go to - I believe we have Steve(ph) in South - let's see. Steve, where are you? Hill City, South Dakota, right?
STEVE (Caller): Yeah, I'm in Hill City.
COX: Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
STEVE: How are you doing? I like your show. Thank you very much.
COX: Thank you. Thank you for calling.
STEVE: I just want to start off a little bit about some of my background. I didn't really have a very prolific family. And recently, my father passed away. And I'm originally from the Dallas area, Dallas, Texas. And I had been doing wind turbine work, working on the electric turbines that, you know, generate electricity from the wind.
STEVE: We're working on those in Big Spring - and Big Spring, Texas and in Kansas. And that had lasted for a bit and I got laid off. And I started collecting unemployment benefits and that only lasted for so long. And then - and you know, I'm only 23 years old, so I can't really go back to school until I'm 24 because I really don't have any, you know, family background because the scholarship makes it really difficult to get any, you know, financial aid.
So my tough decision that I had to make was I had to move basically across the country because the (technical difficulties) in the area that I was living in was just absurd. It was incredibly difficult to get a job. Hundreds of applicants were trying to get all the low jobs, you know, the low-paying jobs. I couldn't even get one of those.
And, you know, I moved up here. And after a few months, still on unemployment and relying on friends to, you know, keep my - you know, keep it up for me. Finally, you know, pulled a job off and I just want to wish - for everyone out there that's having difficulty finding one, that - just keep your hopes up and it'll come.
COX: Sometimes you have to move. Steve, thank you very much. Is there a lot of that, people moving around to get jobs?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: I was, you know, just - I spent a few weeks in Ohio, interviewing a lot of workers and communities that have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs. A lot of kids graduating from high school are moving to other states. Some are moving to Texas.
Steve, who just called, is smart. He moved up to South Dakota, which is one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. And I was going to say to Steve, you might not be able to get a scholarship to go to a four-year college, but it's not a bad idea, you know, to go to a community college, which often costs very little. And if you do well there, you can often - you know, then a four-year college will often be eager to grab you.
I think one of the mysteries that's going on right now in the nation is, you know, while the unemployment rate is so high and job growth is pretty low, you know, corporations seem to be doing very, very well. Corporate profits have reached, you know, a record level, you know, an annual rate of one-point, you know, six, $1.7 trillion. And corporations, you know, I read in many newspapers, are sitting on $1.8 trillion in cash.
And, you know, many economists are wondering, well, you know, where are the animal spirits of companies? Why aren't they investing this, why aren't they using this money to hire? And it's almost this confidence game where if 100 of those corporations each decided to hire two, three, 4,000 people, then that would, you know, bring down the unemployment rate. Consumers - you know, workers would have more money to spend, that would cost companies, you know...
COX: To hire.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: ...to hire more people. And we - it would be great to get into this virtuous cycle, and I don't know...
COX: Why doesn't it happen?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: ...why doesn't it happen.
COX: That was my question to you. Do you know why it doesn't happen?
Mr. GREENHOUSE: When I, you know, speak to people from the business community, they say the demand isn't there from consumers and...
COX: For the products.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: ...for our products. And why should we spend money expanding our auto plant or refrigerator factory or software company unless the demand is there?
COX: So it's the old conundrum, we don't have any people to buy, but the people who want to buy don't have jobs so they don't have money to buy.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yeah. And I do think, and this isn't discussed very much, is I think some companies are, you know, quietly expanding in India or in China or in Mexico. And I think one of the stories why unemployment - why the employment growth is so slow is that, you know, many - you know, large companies are, you know, hiring more overseas.
COX: Steve, thank you very much. Steven Greenhouse is the labor and workplace correspondent for The New York Times. He is author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker." He joined us here in Studio 3A. Once again, Steve, always good to talk to you.
Mr. GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here, Tony. Thanks very much.
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