Carpe Diem

Income inequality can be explained by demographics, and because the demographics change, there’s income mobility

incomeThere’s been a lot of discussion in recent years on the issue of “income inequality,” especially concerns about “increasing income inequality” (557,000 search results for that term on Google) and “rising income inequality” (973,000 Google search results).  A recent article in The Atlantic referred to America’s “income inequality crisis.”  There’s apparently not as much attention on “explaining income inequality” (only 43,300 Google search results), a topic that this post attempts to address.

Most of the discussion on income inequality focuses on the relative differences over time between low-income and high-income American households, but it’s also instructive to analyze the demographic differences among income groups at a given point in time to answer the question: How are high-income households different from low-income households?

The chart above (click to enlarge) shows some key demographic characteristics of U.S. households by income quintiles for 2011, using updated data from the Census Bureau (here, here and here, and see my previous versions of this analysis for years 2009 and 2010).

Below is a summary of some of the key demographic differences between American households in different income quintiles in 2011:

1. Mean number of earners per household. On average, there are significantly more income earners per household in the top income quintile households (2.03) than earners per household in the lowest-income households (0.44).  It can also be seen that the average number of earners increases for each higher income quintile, demonstrating that one of the main factors in explaining differences in income among U.S. households is the number of earners per household.

2. Share of households with no earners. Almost 62 percent of U.S. households in the bottom fifth of Americans by income had no earners for the entire year in 2011.  In contrast, fewer than 3 percent of the households in the top fifth had no earners in 2011, providing more evidence of the strong relationship between household income and income earners per household.

3. Marital status of householders. Married-couple households represent a much greater share of the top income quintile (78.2 percent) than for the bottom income quintile (16.7 percent), and single-parent or single households represented a much greater share of the bottom 20 percent of households (83.3 percent) than for the top 20 percent (21.8 percent).  Like for the average number of earners per household, the share of married-couple households also increases for each higher income quintile.

4. Age of householders. Roughly 3 out of 4 households (73.7percent) in the top income quintile included individuals in their prime earning years between the ages of 35-64, compared to only 44.3 percent of household members in the bottom fifth who were in that prime earning age group.  The share of householders in the prime earning age group of 35-64 year olds increases with each higher income quintile.

Compared to members of the top 20 percent of households by income, household members in the bottom 20 percent were 1.6 times more likely to be in the youngest age group (under 35 years), and almost three times more likely to be in the oldest age group (65 years and over).

6. Work status of householders. More than four times as many top quintile households included at least one adult who was working full-time in 2011 (78.2 percent) compared to the bottom income quintile (only 18.5 percent), and more than five times as many households in the bottom quintile included adults who did not work at all (67.7 percent) compared to top quintile households whose family members did not work (12.9 percent).  The share of householders working full-time increases at each higher income quintile.

7. Education of householders. Family members of households in the top fifth by income were five times more likely to have a college degree (62.3 percent) than members of households in the bottom income quintile (only 12.1 percent).  In contrast, householders in the lowest income quintile were 15 times more likely than those in the top income quintile to have less than a high school degree in 2011 (26.9 percent vs. 1.8 percent).  As expected, the Census data show that there is a significantly positive relationship between education and income.

Bottom Line: Household demographics, including the average number of earners per household and the marital status, age, and education of householders are all very highly correlated with household income.  Specifically, high-income households have a greater average number of income-earners than households in lower-income quintiles, and individuals in high income households are far more likely than individuals in low-income households to be well-educated, married, working full-time, and in their prime earning years.  In contrast, individuals in lower-income households are far more likely than their counterparts in higher-income households to be less-educated, working part-time, either very young (under 35 years) or very old (over 65 years), and living in single-parent households.

The good news is that the key demographic factors that explain differences in household income are not fixed over our lifetimes, which means that individuals and households are not destined to remain in a single income quintile forever.  Fortunately, evidence shows that individuals and households move up and down the income quintiles over their lifetimes as the key demographic variables highlighted above change.

It’s highly likely that most of today’s high-income, college-educated, married individuals who are now in their peak earning years were in a lower-income quintile in their prior, single younger years, before they acquired education and job experience.  It’s also likely that individuals in today’s top income quintiles will move back down to a lower income quintile in the future in their retirement years, which is just part of the natural lifetime cycle of moving up and down the income quintiles for most Americans.  So when we hear reports about an “income inequality crisis” in America, we should keep in mind that basic household demographics go a long way towards explaining the differences in household income in the United States.  And because the key income-determining demographic variables change over a person’s life, so does income mobility.

Update: See some related commentary from Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Kyle Wingfield.

64 thoughts on “Income inequality can be explained by demographics, and because the demographics change, there’s income mobility

  1. Why all this concentration on income inequality? What about other inequalities? Short people, ugly people, smelly people, stupid people, loud people, they all seem to get short shrift in the respect department, if not the income one. And is income the true measure of the man? If for some reason I live my life as a good and decent human being but by my own disinterest never achieve above average wealth, am I a failure? Should I resent a system that has failed to elevate me in terms of income and, in fact, allowed others to surpass my accumulated wealth?

    It might make some kind of warped sense for a business to maximize its profits in the sense that it will then be able to maintain itself in the marketplace but is that true as well about an individual? If my neighbor makes more money than I do, will he then be able to buy me out or merge me into his own scheme? The national fixation on maximizing personal income is a disease not found everywhere and is most dwelt upon by those least affected by it.

    • Because income is correlated with happiness. Income buys food, shelter, and clothing, the basic necessities for human flourishing. Height and good looks do not, though both may help.

  2. Left out a key variable:

    “But let’s take a look at that list of high-income-inequality states again. What do California, Arizona and New Mexico all have in common? I’ll give you a hint: Texas comes in seventh on the high-income-inequality state list.

    That’s right: The three states with the highest income inequality also all share a border with Mexico. But what about New York? Or Georgia? Or Illinois (which is the sixth-most-unequal state)? They are all hundreds of miles away from Mexico.

    Well, it turns out that all of those states have huge illegal immigrant populations too. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, every one of the top five unequal states also is among the top 10 states with high illegal immigrant populations.”

    http://washingtonexaminer.com/conn-carroll-the-income-inequality-factor-liberals-cant-talk-about/article/2515360

    This shouldn’t be a surprise. Latin America, especially Mexico, outsources alot of their unskilled poverty to the USA. They get those people off their books and a bonus in remittance $$ home. It’s a win-win for them, a mostly lose-lose for us.

    • Of course, all those lazy lawnworkers I see out at 5:00 a.m. tending corporate lawns and all those cooks in our restaurants and field hands out picking our crops (talk to Georgia) – taking jobs away from poor lazy white people who think they are worth more $$$.

        • No offense to you was intended.

          I can give you this: the lazy ones are probably the ones most likley to drop just inside the border – living in Illinois, I don’t see many lazy Mexicans – and, as they don’t walk around with ID around their necks I have no idea whether they are “legal” or not. They work their asses off. Walk into any Chinese, Italian, Hungarian, German restaurant and invariably the cooks are all Mexican.

          • moe-

            i’m not sure i see your point. yup, many and probably most of them work very hard. the lazy ones tend to stay home.

            immigration crackdowns in california created a labor shortage that literally left crop rotting in fields. we both need and benefit from the workers and locals do not want the jobs.

            but they are also generally not well paid.

            this would bring down average and median income which seems to support the argument that big influxes in immigration tend to drive down average incomes even though the overall income for the region may rise.

            immigrants (at least from mexico) tend to be young and poorly educated as well which jibes with the rest of the post.

            so i guess i’m just not really sure what you are getting at.

            what was the reason for your comment?

          • Morg,

            The reference in Paul’s post regarding Mexico sending it’s unskilled labor force to the U.S. I attributed a sentiment behind his post that was uncalled for. I hear a lot of Mexican slamming up here – at the same time I watch some of my on-the-dole white trash neighbors sit around and collect their handouts because they are too lazy to work. My bad.

          • ah, ok.

            well, i can certainly see disagreeing with the notion that such immigrants are somehow a lose/lose for us.

            i think that is completely untrue.

            since when is access to cheap labor bad for an economy? it’s funny how many see it as an advantage for china/indonesia/etc and then see it as a pitfall here.

            i guess the presupposition is that these folks are
            taking american jobs away from willing and deserving americans, which seems to be mostly false. i have never had someone who said “they took the artichoke picking jobs” then say they actually wanted on of those jobs. in fact, crackdowns have created labor shortages and left crops to rot.

            it seems they also forget that if fruit is picked, restaurant food made, or lawn mowed or whatever more cheaply, then the savings are passed on to customers or increase profits, both of which are good things.

            having spent 15 years working in and around silicon valley, i can tell you that the immigrants there are a massive part of the economy and not just at the low end. somehting like 55% of SV start ups are founded by asians of one sort or another.

            it’s also worth noting that average income can be a lousy metric for growth.

            imagine an economy of 3 guys earning 100.

            now imagine each gets more productive and earns 105 but a 4th guy moves in and earns 40.

            the size of the overall economy rises and every single person in it is better off, but average income plummets by around 11%.

            there was a chinese restaurant i liked to eat at in sf. it was run by a family. if you were there in the afternoon, you’d see the kids come back from school and put on aprons and go to work helping out.

            it always struck me as nuts that anyone would object to people like these. they showed up, started a business that provided a good i liked, they saved, accumulated capital, educated their kids, it was the american dream in a nutshell.

            perhaps if you owned the crummy deli next door that was overpriced and had bad food and service, this would seem like a threat, but protecting crummy businesses seems like a poor basis for immigration policy.

          • Morganovich,

            “since when is access to cheap labor bad for an economy?”

            It’s not. What is bad is an overabundance of unskilled labor being imported into a welfare state. In Texas alone, around 70% of illegal immigrants receive some sort of government assistance: http://blog.chron.com/txpotomac/2011/04/study-70-of-texas-illegal-immigrant-families-receive-welfare/

            They may be hardworking, but they are probably also receive some sort of assistance to supplement their low wages. Several yrs ago in Texas, I had a guy from Honduras(probably illegal) lay some tile at my house, and he worked hard and did a fantastic job. My wife and I were talking to him, and he asked us why we didn’t have any kids. We told him we were obsessive about making sure we could afford it. He looked at us like we were crazy and said we shouldn’t worry, the government will pick up the tab like it did for him.

            “having spent 15 years working in and around silicon valley, i can tell you that the immigrants there are a massive part of the economy and not just at the low end. somehting like 55% of SV start ups are founded by asians of one sort or another.”

            Completely agree with this. The GOP just passed the STEM act where it will go to Harry Reid’s Senate to die and Obama promises to veto it if it somehow managed to hit his desk. People with skills tend not to vote Democrat in overwhelming numbers: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/28/stem-act-white-house-immigration_n_2207279.html

            My wife is Colombian and an engineer. There are alot of highly skilled Latin Americans like her that would love to come here, but don’t have a way in. I know some of them. They work hard too, and would bring alot more value than unskilled lettuce pickers of which we have an overabundance. Instead, the educated immigrants largely go to places like Canada that place a premium on highly sought after skill sets.

          • “… at the same time I watch some of my on-the-dole white trash neighbors sit around and collect their handouts because they are too lazy to work.”

            Unfortunately, can’t do much about them since they’re native born citizens. Meanwhile, as the Center for Immigration Studies puts it, “..lower household income coupled with larger household size means that illegal alien households will pay less in taxes and use more in services than native households because households are the primary basis on which taxes are assessed and benefits distributed in the United States. Even assuming that illegals pay all the taxes they are supposed to, given their average household income and size it is difficult for them not to create a significant fiscal drain.”

            http://cis.org/node/3877#illegal

          • paul-

            the welfare aspect is certainly of concern.

            i’m not sure how many of these folks get on the dole, but any is too many.

            my personal thought is that we need a guest worker plan.

            let’s document all these guys and make it easy for them to come.

            then we tax their income and get them paying into funds that pay for their kid’s schooling and not much else.

            they do not get medicaid or welfare.

            they need to be self supporting.

            but it seems to me we want the immigrants, we just need to fix the entitlement system.

          • Morgnovich,

            “they do not get medicaid or welfare.”

            I’d be for that also, but good luck getting that through Reid’s Senate and past Obama’s veto pen.

            “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” ~Milton Friedman

          • Paul

            You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” ~Milton Friedman

            How true.

            My objection is to the welfare state, not the immigrants.

            I too have encountered many hard working individuals who I suspect are illegals. It’s hard to fault them for wanting to improve their lives and provide their children with greater opportunities.

            It’s also hard to fault people for taking something that’s free – to them – when it’s offered.

            I wonder how many of us refuse discounts and rebates on things like energy saving home improvements even though we know other taxpayers are helping pay for them?

          • Paul

            “..lower household income coupled with larger household size means that illegal alien households will pay less in taxes and use more in services than native households because households are the primary basis on which taxes are assessed and benefits distributed in the United States.

            Does that mean that a government policy that’s designed to work exactly that way has unintended consequences? Who would have thought?

          • Ron H,

            “My objection is to the welfare state, not the immigrants.”

            Same here, mostly. I don’t know how importing such large #’s of uneducated and low-skilled immigrants with completely different ideas about government policy, is a net asset for the country.

            “It’s hard to fault them for wanting to improve their lives and provide their children with greater opportunities.”

            Totally agree. It’s also hard to fault the rescuers in the life raft for limiting the amount of people they can pull up to safety.

          • Paul

            Same here, mostly. I don’t know how importing such large #’s of uneducated and low-skilled immigrants with completely different ideas about government policy, is a net asset for the country.

            It’s not an easy question, but I believe it’s true that if you subsidize something you will get more of it.

            Totally agree. It’s also hard to fault the rescuers in the life raft for limiting the amount of people they can pull up to safety.

            Yeah, especially when they’re being forced to continue pulling, and those being rescued can see there’s no end to the rescue effort in sight. Some might make other choices and not even jump in the water to be rescued if they didn’t see those outstretched arms waiting for them.

            I’m all in favor of eliminating the big collective life raft entirely, and allowing individuals and groups – of which there are many – to voluntarily provide their own life rafts and rescue efforts. Then I could choose which , if any, I felt deserved my time and money. What could be better?

          • Methinks,

            “I am no happier about providing perverse incentives for native-born Americans than I am for immigrants.”

            Same here. But we can’t do anything about native-born Americans as long as those incentives exist. In the near term, we have somewhat more leverage in regards to immigration as long as the GOP doesn’t panic and follow the Democrats down a dead-end immigration “reform” that will make the problem worse.
            Also to your point, immigrants are much more likely than native born citizens to use these services. Example from the CIS report: “Based on the 2010-2011 CPS, the share of immigrants and their children on Medicaid or without health insurance is 49 percent.49 In comparison, 28.5 percent of natives and their young children are uninsured or on Medicaid.”

            And besides welfare, consider schooling. CIS: “Since per-student expenditures in the United States are roughly $10,000 a year, it is likely that some $13 billion annually goes to educate illegal aliens in public schools. The total cost for educating illegal aliens and their U.S.-born children likely comes to over $39 billion a year.” How many illegal immigrants pay enough in taxes to cover their kids’ educational costs? Who is going to go for ensuring the children of illegal aliens do not have access to schooling?
            And how many voters would refuse the children of illegal aliens access to health care?

            I like immigrants, my wife and daughter are immigrants, but I don’t see how the open borders philosophy is fiscally sound.

        • Morganovich,

          Had one other thought. From the CIS study:

          “It must be remembered that, in general, illegals cannot use the welfare system themselves. But their U.S.-born children can be enrolled in Medicaid and receive food assistance. Table 39 reflects the fact that a very large share of illegal immigrants have low incomes and as a result their children can enroll in means-tested programs. This is important because it means that efforts to bar illegals from using welfare programs will be ineffective. Very few are using these programs directly and their U.S.-citizen children will continue to enjoy the same welfare eligibility as any other American citizen.”

          • a fair point.

            the law about being born here making you a citizen is anachronistic and one that most countries have long since abandoned.

            it’s not a great idea and really ought to be done away with as it creates some truly perverse incentives.

            but again, this seem like a welfare state issue as opposed to immigration.

            the freidman point about welfare states and immigration is spot on, but also very fixable.

            we just need a guest worker program and to plug this citizenship loophole.

          • one other scary little tidbit:

            50% of american children are on medicaid.

            i had not thought about it, but i wonder how many are the children of illegal immigrants.

          • this seem like a welfare state issue as opposed to immigration.

            I completely agree. I am no happier about providing perverse incentives for native-born Americans than I am for immigrants. So long as the welfare state exists, everyone (including immigrants) will find a way to attach themselves to the tit of the country’s dwindling producers.

            50% of american children are on medicaid

            Just wait until Oblundercare kicks in and 100% of the country will be on a much more expensive and less satisfying version of Medicaid.

  3. “Based on the limited data that are comparable across nations, the U.S. income distribution
    appears to be among the most unequal of all major industrialized countries and the United States
    appears to be among the nations experiencing the greatest increases in measures of income
    dispersion.”

    Quote from the Congressional Research Service

    • I started going through the report and from an initial blush it is making falling into the same trap that Mark was discussing. It may be there but I didn’t see it regarding the bottom only adds in income it does not consider transfer payments welfare/food stamps. When those are added in the conclusions are totally different. A lot of the congressional research is self serving for what ever congressman wants to make a particular point. Bad on both sides of the fence.

    • I wonder if the Vikings are feeling right now that they aren’t going to the Super Bowl because Adrian Peterson’s performance was so much better than every other offensive player on the team?

  4. Geez, Aiken_Bob., the Burkhauser-Crouch meta-analysis states:

    …there does not appear to be a clear
    relationship between the extent of income inequality and intragenerational income mobility.

    That statement flat out repudiates Perry’s assertion.

    The other cited studies suggest that intragenerational income mobility is flat to declining meaning that rising income inequality combined with stable mobility rates are creating unequal distributions of lifetime income. More repudiation of Perry’s assertion.

    • Marmico

      That statement flat out repudiates disagrees with Perry’s assertion.

      There: FIFY.

      But more importantly, as Jon asks: “so what?”

        • Murphy is an insolvent fart with numeracy capabilities. You are just a fart.

          Heh! So, you have no idea *why* income inequality is a problem, you just know it’s something other leftists whine about, so you feel obligated to join in.

      • actually, no marmico, it does absolutely nothing of the sort.

        that fact that you would even make such an argument means you completely missed the point.

        let’s imagine 2 cases:

        in the old case, you got a job and you productivity rose slowly over your career. you begin at 100, climb to 140 and then retire.

        now consider a second case where productivity rises more. you start at 110 and rise to 200.

        this is what has really happened in most cases.

        thus, even comparing your young self to yourself at 45 makes it look like income inequality has risen.

        in reality, this is just a reflection of a steeper productivity curve along the age axis.

        to try to use inter-generational figures is misleading in this case because comparing a 55 year old parent at peak productivity to a 25 year old child who is just starting out make it look like the kids are lagging when it’s really just that they are young.

        all you are really railing against is a steeper productivity curve and people earning more as a % of starting wages at the peak of their careers.

        note that in case 2, everyone gets paid more at every stage, but you are determined to call it bad because they make more progress in a career.

        • that fact that you would even make such an argument means you completely missed the point.

          The fact that you were broke and moved from San Francisco to Park City means you are ?.

          What point is missed dickweed? Perry’s opinion (basic life cycle hypothesis) or a Congressional Research Service paper with 58 footnotes and some of the cites are way beyond Perry’s “turkey” pay grade.

          Of course, I make more money and have more assets than my kids, dickweed.

          Can you say likewise.

          • the fact that you keep speaking about things about which you know nothing says a great deal about you marmico.

            so you are back to this “i am broke” argument? this seems like the febrile imaginings of a guy with no actual argument who resorts to making stuff up and engaging in personal attacks.

            i could live anywhere i want. sf is not all that expensive relative to my income (thought the taxes suck). i moved to park city for quality of life and to ski and bike more and to be near my family. is that so impossible for your fizzing brain to imagine?

            i still keep a place in sf.

            but you already know all this.

            ask around tough guy. if you have anyhting like the finance chops you describe, you should have no trouble finding out who i am and how wrong you are.

            as i have no kids, it’s easy for me to have more money that they do. but i also have more money than my parents, and they are quite wealthy. can you say the same?

            you are just flat out talking out of your rectum about somehting you know nothing about and could not know anyhting about.

            can you seriously expect anyone to take you seriously on this?

            this invented narrative is just the sad ranting of a liar and a fake.

            pretty weak.

            i also note that you actually contradicted your own argument.

            you say “of course i am richer than my kids” despite having made the argument that

            “there does not appear to be a clear
            relationship between the extent of income inequality and intragenerational income mobility.”

            somehow repudiated mark’s argument despite such figures not being adjusted for age differences.

            did you even notice that you were shooting yourself down?

  5. I believe a flat consumption tax, and Pigou taxes, it would be a lot simpler.

    Milton Friedman advocated a progressive consumption tax to finance military outlays; I could live with that.

    That said, the sniveling, whining and whimpering of America’s Rich and Famous is really annoying.

    Or form a Leona Helmsley Fan Club

    • so, just to be clear:

      when the government announced that it plans to take an additional 9% of your income to waste on all manner of largely useless crap and wealth redistribution and you say “hey, i oppose this. i am already paying into the most progressive tax system in the oecd and you are wasting the money you already have, knock it off.”

      that’s sniveling and whining?

      what an interesting (and entitled) framing of the issue that is.

      precisely what are the well to do to do when the feds decide they want our money? smile and say “here you go”?

      and before you start on some tirade about tax rates on the rich in the us being lower than europe, realize somehting: it’s not true.

      unlike europe, the us taxes global income. the very wealthy make most income from investments. if i ran my same business but lived in paris and was a french citizen, i would pay NO taxes on my investments.

      the us is, in fact, the biggest tax shelter in the world, just one that Americans are not allowed to use.

      i would happily pay a 60% tax on my salary to pay no tax on my investments. of course, i’d probably stop taking a salary altogether, but hey…

      • Morganovich,

        People like Benji don’t appreciate slaves who don’t sing happily as they work on the tax farm, mmmmmkay?! They happily pay zero federal taxes and basque in the warm glow of their middle class entitlements, so why should you complain about giving up nearly half your income to the plantation owners (who are, of course, the political class)?

  6. President Kennedy, 1962:

    “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded…some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco…Life is unfair.”

  7. GENE POOL…

    There are 10 mph folks….50 mph folks…and 100 mph folks. If we were all equally 10 mph folks, then nobody would be sitting behind a PC examining this “inequality” bullshlt.

    Thank GOD for inequality.

  8. Great article and great data. We need this detailed information in order to fight the socialists. Other factors contributing to success are much higher investment rates, higher number of hours worked, higher rates of business formation, and continuing education.

  9. Income mobility does nothing to change the fact of inreasing income inequality. As the curve of income becomes more steeply skewed fewer people will spend less time at the hihger end, and not as far up on that end and more time at the lower end, which is gaining no where neear as fast as the high end, with the result that most will be worse off over their lifetime.

    However as the curve becomes more skewed those few who do well will do VERY well, further increaseing the skewness.

    • Nonsense. Learn some economics.

      What you are describing is merely a reflection of higher gains during a persons working lifetime.

      So what?

      Surely your not really concerned about the top .1% of income earners in this country, are you? If so, your life must be really good, and you have too much time on your hands.

      • Hydra is one of those who would prefer to earn $500 as long as his neighbour earns $400 to earning $500,000 if his neighbour earns $700,000. It’s all relative, but the Hydras of the world always compare everything in the most idiotic way they can. It’s as if he goes out of his way to do it.

  10. It is not at all surprising that Dr. Perry should try to defend the injustice of income inequality – the American Enterprise Institute he works for is a pro-business, conservative think tank which received nearly $2,000,000 from the Koch brothers.

      • I am very sorry if there’s been a mistake, but a Google search finds 78 comments about the Koch Brothers donating $1,979,400 to AEI.

        There are 980,000 pages mentioning the association, financial or otherwise, between the Kochs and AEI.

  11. Demographics??? Income mobility??? I think the income inequality we have had develop over the past 20 years can be mostly explained by the impact that info tech has had on our economy — I do not know what would explain the income inequality prior to that; but, I do think a concentration of wealth coupled with the political influence it buys is a big problem. I recommend two books — Hedrick Smith’s ‘Who Stole The American Dream’ and Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee’s ‘Race Against The Machine’. What is getting rewarded is highly skilled work and very specialized talent. The rest is just people in powerful positions who can exploit their position — I’m talkin ’bout Wall Street which has misplaced incentives for their “value added” work.

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