The Coolest Child Care Program You’ve Never Heard Of

(Photo: familymwr)

(Photo: familymwr)

During World War II, U.S. women entered the workforce in record numbers — factories full of “Rosie the Riveters” producing planes and munitions for the war effort.  In response, Congress passed the Lanham Act of 1940, which administered and subsidized a large childcare system in 635 communities in the whole country except New Mexico from 1943-1946.  A new paper by Chris Herbst examines the effects of the Lanham Act; his research is particularly relevant in light of President Barack Obama‘s push for universal preschool.  “What’s intriguing about the Lanham Act is that it’s the U.S.’s first, and only, laboratory within which to assess universal child care,” writes Herbst in an email about the paper. “It may just be the coolest child care program you’ve never heard of.”  Here’s the abstract:

This paper provides a comprehensive analysis of the Lanham Act of 1940, a heavily-subsidized and universal child care program that was administered throughout the U.S. during World War II. I begin by estimating the impact of the Lanham Act on maternal employment using 1940 and 1950 Census data in a difference-in-difference-in-differences framework. The evidence suggests that mothers’ paid work increased substantially following the introduction of the child care program. I then study the implications of the Lanham Act for children’s long-run outcomes related to educational attainment, family formation, and labor market participation. Using Census data from 1970 to 1990, I assess well-being in a lifecycle framework by tracking cohorts of treated individuals throughout their prime working years. Results from difference-in-differences models suggest that the Lanham Act had strong and persistent positive effects on well-being, equivalent to a 0.36 standard deviation increase in a summary index of adult outcomes. In addition, a supplementary analysis of distributional effects shows that the benefits of the Lanham Act accrued largely to the most economically disadvantaged adults. Together, these findings shed light on the design of contemporary child care systems that balance the twin goals of increasing parental employment and enhancing child well-being.

And here‘s a recent presentation Herbst gave on the paper.

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  1. Benito says:

    “large childcare system in 635 communities in 49 states from 1943-1946″

    There were only 48 states until 1959. :)

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1
  2. LD says:

    “The evidence suggests that mothers’ paid work increased substantially following the introduction of the child care program.”

    Isn’t that because women were working on the war effort? Isn’t the child card more of an effect than a cause? Wouldn’t we expect that women and mothers were working more in this time period?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1
    • NZ says:


      1. Consider the type of women see working as a patriotic duty and consider it a sacrifice to give up being full-time moms for a few years for the sake of the war effort.

      2. Then consider the type of women who have kids but return to work as soon as they can because they find being a stay-at-home mom boring and unsatisfying–or because they don’t have husbands who can support them.

      Aren’t these two types of women likely to be very different types of mothers to their children? Aren’t they likely to have passed on very different sets of traits to their children, both by genetics and by nurture? Won’t their children have predictably different long-term outcomes?

      This would suggest that just because subsidized childcare may have been a good idea in 1940, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea now.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 8 Thumb down 12
    • Phil Persinger says:


      Women were not drafted into factory work during WWII. It was “voluntary” work, but necessary in many cases to supplement household income in what were still hard times.. Only after child care became available would many women have felt secure in seeking employment outside the home.

      Child care first; employment second. The article has it exactly right.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 3
    • Ryan says:

      They are comparing women with access to child care and without access to child care, during the SAME time period.

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  3. NZ says:

    I’d like to know what else, besides having gone or not gone to subsidized day care, the study controlled for when looking at long-term outcomes. Seems like there could be a high noise-to-signal ratio there.

    (This is before taking into account the implausibility of the claim that a government-appointed stranger does a better job of raising a child–in a group with some 30 other children, no less–than the child’s own mother.)

    So, were mothers worse back then, or were the kids who got put into subsidized day care just already more likely to do well in life?

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      I would also want to see the results for the next generation. Success is viewed in different ways and raising the next generation is part of that. They survived but did they have the skills needed to raise the next to also be successful?

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      • NZ says:

        Right. I’ll be proud if my daughter grows up to be a happy, fulfilled, and well-adjusted person. But I’ll be REALLY proud if my daughter marries a great guy and makes me some happy, fulfilled, well-adjusted grandkids.

        This is a pretty common desire among parents. At my best friend’s wedding, when it came time to make speeches, the father-in-law stood up, held one finger in the air, and bellowed a single word: “Grandchildren!”

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 12
      • NZ says:

        The low comment rating for my comment above is strange, since my observation is non-controversial, even cliche: parents want to become grandparents.

        It’s a trope of family sitcoms: the graying mother asks her 20- or 30-something: “When are you gonna have a baaaaby??” It’s also a trope among opinion writers. How many times have you seen this phrase: “…for the sake of our children’s children”?

        I figure the thumbs down must be because I expressed the desire for a specific (though still rather vague) outcome from my daughter. Desiring certain outcomes from your kids is normal–even healthy: Obama’s universal pre-K certainly makes explicit certain desired outcomes from kids–but maybe we’re just not supposed to admit it.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It would be unfortunate indeed if people defined spending eight hours a day, five days a week with a caregiver, as “being raised by a stranger”.

      * The parents, who spend the evenings, nights, weekends, sick days, and vacation days, with their children, are still raising their kids.

      * If you spend all day with someone, day after day after day, she quits being “a stranger”.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 4
      • NZ says:

        That’s a fair point. In fact, my teachers in high school and college had a far greater impact on me than did my caretakers in preschool.

        However, you should read the White House press release linked above. It’s full of language promising not that kids will just be kept safe until their parents can come home from work and resume their job as parents, but that the programs will be designed to really change the kids’ outcomes from what they otherwise might have been had they been left to their parents during the day.

        And this isn’t just 8 hours a day, either, nor is it limited to academics. The release talks about “full-day” kindergarten, instilling “emotional development,” “improving a child’s health,” and, most alarmingly, home visitation. (It reminds us that this latter service is voluntary, but hey, if some certified government worker can come over and watch your kids for free so you can go to the club, why wouldn’t you volunteer?)

        So, while I can’t honestly say that my own experience in pre-K was one where my caregivers supplanted the role of my parents, that certainly seems to be one of the aims in Obama’s universal pre-K.

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  4. James Wynn says:

    Ummm…in this case, the government was the both child care provider AND the ultimate employer. I suppose this research also demonstrates the positive benefit of sending the father of a family overseas to war for a few years.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1
    • James Wynn says:

      I just want to hit an important point in my comment above:
      Child care can only increase employment if there is employment to be had. For example, if the government needs more workers –even female workers– then universal child care is an added expense of employment. And we went deeply into debt to cover that expense. Without that artificial demand, I’m not sure that the benefits universal child care can be mapped to other circumstances.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 1
      • Phil Persinger says:

        James W—

        We went deeply into debt to defeat the Axis powers. Day care on the home front was a vanishingly small part of that cost as I’m sure you know. It was provided to free up women to work at jobs that men could no longer fill. I’m not sure what you mean by “artificial demand” unless you’re referring to stress the general war effort put on production.

        Our situation today is similar in this respect: many households can’t get by financially without both parents (or the single parent) in the work force. Day care frees these adults to go to work or find different work– very much in the manner of K-12– whether here at home or overseas.

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  5. Marina says:

    “French kids don’t throw food” by Pamela Druckerman looks at the way French government organised and fully subsidised chilcare affects mothers going to work, and somewhat looks at how it impacts on children.

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  6. Klara says:

    I’m a preschool teacher in BC, our provincial government subsides cost of childcare for low income families. I have worked in centers with “vulnerable” children, they were better off, safer at the daycare than at home. These are exactly the children that will greatly benefit from being in a safe and consistent environment, being taught social skills that their own parents may be lacking. So look at how many immigrants,ESL or children from unstable homes can be given a better start in life and education, isn’t it worth it? You will benefit for next 60 or so years by having people who have skills to actively participate and contribute to society.

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    • NZ says:

      How do the parents of these “vulnerable” children like being told that the government is doing a better job at parenting their kids than they are? Or do you put a different spin on it?

      I don’t mean to say it isn’t possible that the government can’t do a better job at parenting than certain parents. There are certainly demographic pockets where parenting is a lost art, and even evolutionary parental instincts have been neutralized by bad cultural habits. And furthermore, it’s probably best not to describe what’s going on in as blunt/honest terms as “a generational reset button” or “the government coming in and taking over the job of parenting” because it could trigger an adverse reaction that threatens to undo the whole thing. So mainly I guess I’m just curious whether the benevolent architects behind the program recognize their own true mission.

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  7. steve says:

    “I assess well-being in a lifecycle framework by tracking cohorts of treated individuals throughout their prime working years. Results from difference-in-differences models suggest that the Lanham Act had strong and persistent positive effects on well-being, equivalent to a 0.36 standard deviation increase in a summary index of adult outcomes. In addition, a supplementary analysis of distributional effects shows that the benefits of the Lanham Act accrued largely to the most economically disadvantaged adults”

    I don’t know what makes you people so timid. If the above quote from the article is true, then it is not just a good argument for universal daycare. It is a good argument for taking kids away from there parents altogether and having the state raise them entirely. Especially if they are economically disadvantaged. If a little is good, more is often better.

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    • NZ says:

      Shhh. Yes, that’s what we want, but you’re not supposed to say it out loud.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3
    • Phil Persinger says:


      Yours is a fine example of an argument by reductio ad absurdum…

      So try this counter-example: we should– as individuals, acting through charities or acting in common through government– simply pull out of certain geographical areas of this continent, both urban and rural, and let things proceed in a natural way as they have done in Mogadishu, Bosnia and the Congo.

      Neither argument– yours or mine– is the basis for sound policy.

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      • NZ says:

        It’s interesting and revealing how you’ve phrased your counter-example, with the phrase “let things proceed in a natural way”. You are saying, if we let certain types of people manage their own affairs, because of innate characteristics among those people their societies will inevitably crumble into violence and chaos like that found in Somalia and the Congo.

        This is the “benevolent colonialist” argument in a nutshell. Not only was it employed by European colonialists in the very countries you mentioned, it was also the justification for the American invasion of Iraq, and the reason given for our intervention in Libya and our threatened intervention in Syria.

        The same argument is now being used to justify universal pre-K for “at risk” (i.e. poor and mostly non-white) kids: nice white people from the government will do a better job instilling “vocabulary and emotional development” and “health,” etc. than the kids’ parents would.

        I don’t necessarily dispute this, and even though my reflex is to cringe at the Orwellian nature of it, upon further reflection I don’t even consider it evil. And even though in Iraq the analogous campaign was a failure, I don’t see why it should automatically be considered impossible.

        What I am curious about is whether the people pushing universal pre-K understand all this. It’s tricky because even if they do, they would be wise never to publicly acknowledge it. Thus my comment immediately above: “You’re not supposed to say it out loud.”

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      • steve says:

        If you can get the Feds to move out of, and somehow make a convincing promise that they will stay out of Detroit. I would be happy to move there.

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      • Phil Persinger says:

        NZ & Steve–

        My reductio ad absurdum argument was meant as an illustration of how an extreme position is poor basis for policy decisions. Your replies demonstrate effectively how ridiculous that argument is; I thank you for your attention to that matter.

        As mentioned by others in this thread, the Lanham centers were established as a matter of policy during wartime. Investigating their efficacy for education/later-life-outcomes was not a high priority at the time. That’s what the Herbst publication discusses– and I think that in many ways his effort diverts attention from the real issues.

        Debates concerning establishment of universal day-care/pre-K/kindergarten have been around forever, but the over-riding reason for doing so– to provide a safe, clean, lively environment for one’s small children while one is working to keep a roof over their heads– gets lost in the general hand-wringing over the state of education in the nation. The educational component in pre-K is important– and should be discussed in parallel– but it shouldn’t be treated as the only concern.

        This is no crypto-Orwellian/Vatican/socialist plot to brainwash young minds; this is economic policy. If both parents in a household are working, there is often no alternative to day-care– and good day-care is difficult to find and/or afford. To get bogged down, as everyone has, in debates about whether day-care/pre-K is better than home-care is to miss the real problem. The real world is not the ’50s fantasy world of Newt Gingrich. For many families rich or poor, educated or illiterate, there is no home-care because no adults are home.

        So here’s another absurd argument: would you rather have decent universal day-care/pre-K or would you rather have 4-year-olds home alone playing with matches?

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      • NZ says:

        @Phil Persinger:

        I understood your reducto, I just found a piece of your phrasing interesting and worth looking at closer.

        I also understand the economic view of universal pre-K. But your argument has two major flaws I can see.

        1. The “these days it takes two parents working full time to be able to afford a middle class lifestyle and so who will watch the kids?” problem is not going to be fixed by universal pre-K, which serves instead as a band-aid solution. We should be asking how we got to this place where a parent, typically the father/husband, can no longer support his family on his own. (That is, of course, unless we are beginning with the premise that government-appointed strangers will do a better job of raising kids than the kids’ own parents will–and thus why an examination of that question is relevant.)

        2. Obama’s universal pre-K is primarily not intended for the children of married parents who both happen to work. Typically, they can afford childcare. Primarily, universal pre-K will serve the children of single moms. These children come from households that are poorer and less amenable to learning, good nutrition, and so on. Nowadays, many of these households do not feature English as the primary language either. Once again, universal pre-K does not attack the root causes of these problems, but instead serves as a band-aid that in fact makes the problems worse by lowering the cost to the single moms, thereby further incentivizing poor young women to become single moms (rather than, say, marry a guy with a decent job before having kids). The spiral will continue, because this is the government taking over the role of husband, father, and provider.

        The main point I was making earlier was that neither of the above issues were at play in the context in which the Lanham Act was passed in 1940. Back then, women with children were almost always married, and they went to work temporarily to help out during the war effort, and mainly not because otherwise they couldn’t afford the roof over their heads but because it was seen as a patriotic duty.

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      • steve says:

        Is how this is going to be paid for come up. I noticed that daycare in red states happ

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • john says:


      “The Lanham Act programs served children of all ages. ”

      “We are not subsidizing an expanded educational program nor a Federal welfare program, but we are making money available to assist local communities in meeting a war need for the care of children while their mothers are engaged in war production.”

      “No regulations accompanied the federal monies.”

      The Lanham Act wasn’t a universal pre-school or a school at all. It was child care pure and simple, so that their mothers could work in a job for the war effort. I am sure many centers did set aside time for reading to the kids, and maybe even lessons (difficult with children of all ages, but the old one room schoolhouses managed.) However, I am not doubting the reported success. Maybe something as simple as playing with 30 kids of various ages and backgrounds all day is more developmentally stimulating than sitting at home with just you and your brother.

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      • Melissa says:

        There actually is a large body of scholarly evidence that going to approximately full-time day care as young as 3 is developmentally better for kids than staying at home with just mom and siblings. The “better” aspects noted by the research include not just social skills but cognitive as well.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Even overlooking your radical quadrupling of the time spent with the program, enough things have changed that the results can’t be easily applied.

      For example, the average schoolteacher was smarter back then than now, because women (especially married women) had very few skilled-career options: you could be a teacher, a nurse, or a housewife. Single women could be secretaries. Married women could normally be secretaries only if their husband owned the business. And that was about it.

      So what this study really says is, if you take working-class kids out of the poorly supervised “play with your friends and be home before dark” model, and put them in a structured program with smart teachers, then you’ll see benefits. Kids at home are now better supervised (when was the last time you saw a four year old playing on the sidewalk without an adult watching her?) and the quality of the teachers we can attract is lower (because women have better opportunities, and take them).

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  8. SG says:

    I will answer Phil’s closing question:
    –So here’s another absurd argument: would you rather have decent universal day-care/pre-K or would you rather have 4-year-olds home alone playing with matches?

    I think to make an informed decision, a total cost analysis would need to be made, and a full accounting of the related costs and impacts to

    – net increase in taxes/debt required to fund
    – net cost of the reduction of two parent families caused by couples no longer needing each others support
    – net cost of to the system of increased demand for services by people who pay no net taxes or earn their living on the black market.
    – net new jobs ands business out put reduced by additional taxes to pay for such a program
    – 10 fold increase in costs to provide than promised as is typical in any gov’t program in the US.
    – cost of failure and waste. Gov’t funded schools fail to adequately prepare students for college. What gives you any confidence that government is the best party to handle education?
    – loss of competitiveness international business caused by excessive tax burden as we incrementally increase the welfare state.
    – redundancy tax of having two systems one for the poor paid for by the working class via taxes. And another vastly more successful program for those who do not want their children to contract TB at a gov’t pre-school or day care.
    – cost future care mental illnesses from mothers no longer bonding with their children during the day at such a critical age.

    NZ I thumbed up every post you made. As to why you got such negative comments I think it is just that so many visitors to this page are students and approach things from a purely academic approach without any real life experience to put behind it. I have worked in both business and academia. By far the vast majority of insane people with important positions were employed in the latter.

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    • sg says:

      To wit I leave you with a quote of George Carlin:
      ” You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

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    • NZ says:


      The problem with students isn’t their academic approach (do they still do “academics” in university? I thought that gets in the way of self-esteem and diversity training) or even their lack of life experience generally. Rather, it’s their tendency to lack of one particular experience: being a married parent.

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    • Phil Persinger says:

      SG & NZ–

      Thank you each for your very interesting and extensive replies.

      So far, I haven’t detected in your separate posts how you would prefer the child-care issue to be addressed– if, indeed, you each think there is problem at all. Is there a problem, or is it all in people’s minds? Please discuss.

      Yes, it would be interesting to investigate why it takes two or more incomes to support the typical household nowadays. I, too, wish that it weren’t so. But the problem is with us. What do we do about the predicament of these families regarding pre-K? Please discuss.

      Yes, the organization and funding of a universal pre-K system will be problematic. Is the present situation better and less expensive? Please discuss.

      I find the assumptions underlying the rest of your comments to be as dumbfounding as you no doubt find mine. Your skepticism about the intent and effectiveness of government far exceeds mine, although it’s my own belief that the incompetence of private business can be even more staggering.

      Everyone has ideas about the demographic of those who read, vote and/or comment on the site; I have the sense to hold my peace about that– since I know I am almost certainly mistaken.

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      • NZ says:

        @Phil Persinger:

        In your posts I detect an oversimplification of the issue–“there are parents who need but cannot afford daycare”–and a powerful urge to *do something*. You seem to say, “Universal pre-K is something, so let’s do it.”

        When others argue that “Hold on a second, maybe this problem is a bit more complicated than that” or “Maybe we should think harder about rushing headlong into universal pre-K,” you accuse them of denying the existence of the problem, of being impractical for seeking to uncover and address the historical roots of the problem, and of being supporters of the status quo who oppose taking any steps to address the problem.

        Clarity is needed. So, I will recap my points here:

        1. Defining the issue.

        The blog post we’re all commenting on can be distilled down to “A study shows that the Lanham Act of 1940 had wonderful long-term outcomes for children of the 1940s. This suggests that Obama’s universal pre-K may have wonderful long-term outcomes for the children of today.” I argued that many variables could have poisoned the study. One big variable that is observably different between the 1940s and today is the types of parents who had/have a need for universal pre-K, and for what reasons. Just because universal pre-K did wonders for the kids of patriotic moms whose husbands were at war overseas does not mean universal pre-K will do any good for the kids of single women who got knocked up and aren’t big on reading, numeracy, or proper English.

        2. Brave New World.

        If under normal healthy circumstances one working parent (usually the father) would be able to provide for the other parent (usually the mother) and for their children, then universal pre-K amounts to the government taking over the role of father and husband for large swaths of the population–especially non-Asian minorities and the poor in general, among whom illegitimacy rates are highest. In fact, universal pre-K, as envisioned by the Obama administration, supplants not only husbands and fathers, but biological mothers as well: the pre-K is not limited to keeping the kids safe and comfortable until mom can come home from work and resume her motherly duties. It isn’t even limited to educating the kids and preparing them for school. It extends to watching over nearly every facet of the kids’ upbringing, from emotional development to diet. This is not paranoia, it is what is explicitly stated in the White House press release. The incentive to get married before you have kids and be good parents to them is gone.

        3. Crypto-eugenics?

        But if there is this wide swath of people who are both unable and unfit to raise their own kids (whom they tend to keep popping out at above-replacement levels), then maybe taking their kids away from them for a generation or two to be raised by over-educated government appointees (most of them liberal white women from middle-class backgrounds) isn’t such a bad idea. It’s like a cultural reset button. That generation of kids, growing up with government-approved values like healthy diet and lifestyles, education- and career-orientedness, and dogmatic belief in democracy will turn out to be less violent, less illegitimacy-prone, and less anti-intellectual than their parents. The benefits will be shared by all. Sure, it’s Orwellian, but if it works who cares? And by the way, for it to work you can’t keep calling it “Orwellian” or people will be spooked by it and they won’t want to support it. So hush up with that “Orwellian” stuff and say it with me: “Universal pre-K is a human right!”

        Thinking more about it now…

        4. Epilogue.

        But will the crypto-eugenic universal pre-K actually work? The lauded long-term outcomes of the kids of 1940 could, as I said in point #1, be explained away by any number of other variables including some big obvious ones like those I mentioned. Also, the lion’s share of the intelligence research community these days believes that genes account for about 50% of intelligence. Other traits–impulse control, conscientiousness, tendency towards violence, etc.–may break down along similar lines. If that’s true, then taking a kid away from his dumb, impulsive, violent, selfish parents and raising him in a state-of-the-art pre-K and post-K system would achieve, on average, only modest results. But it would be very expensive, and it’s not the kid’s parents who’d end up paying for it. Meanwhile, we’d have a thing like that on our conscious.

        Let me know which assumptions above you find dumbfounding.

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      • Phil Persinger says:


        Thank you for taking the time to reply.

        Your last comments bring a certain clarity to the discussion, but I leave to others to decide if the result is better illumination.

        I retract “dumbfounded” and apologize. It was an intemperate remark.

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      • NZ says:

        Very gracious of you, Phil. Nice to know minds–or at least attitudes–can be changed when exposed to reason.

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