Tom Joad Shrugged

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Some good news about poverty:

The Census Bureau reported Tuesday that 36.5 million Americans, or 12.3 percent—were living in poverty last year. That's down from 12.6 percent in 2005.

The median household income was $48,200, a slight increase from the previous year.

And Robert Rector crunches a mountain of data to come up with a generally positive picture of the Forgotten Americans.

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrig­erator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had suf­ficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs. While this individual's life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.

Of course, the living conditions of the average poor American should not be taken as representing all the poor. There is actually a wide range in living conditions among the poor. For example, a third of poor households have both cellular and landline telephones. A third also have telephone answering machines. At the other extreme, however, approxi­mately one-tenth have no phone at all. Similarly, while the majority of poor households do not expe­rience significant material problems, roughly 30 percent do experience at least one problem such as overcrowding, temporary hunger, or difficulty get­ting medical care.

Yet the cult of John Edwards shows no signs of thinning.

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  1. Bear in mind these quite modest living standards are usually financed by a mountain of debt in addition to their meager wages.

  2. So about 12 million Americans regularly suffer from poverty so dire that they have trouble getting enough food, a decent roof over their heads, or a visit to the doctor when they need it.

    The population of New York City.

    Gee, and to think there are still people worried about poverty. Hey, look over there, John Edwards got his hair cut!

  3. Just having an snwering machine–in the age of the PDA and blackberry–has got to be some sort of indicator of poverty.

  4. Not that I support the cult of Edwards myself, but 12.6% to 12.3% isn’t that much of a decline.

  5. Not that I support the cult of Edwards myself, but 12.6% to 12.3% isn’t that much of a decline.

    Tell that to the 369,000 people who are no longer in poverty

  6. Quote in post:
    “roughly 30 percent do experience at least one problem such as overcrowding, temporary hunger, or difficulty get?ting medical care.”

    Quote from Joe:
    “so dire that they have trouble getting enough food, a decent roof over their heads, or a visit to the doctor when they need it.”

    Equivalency? Just askin’

  7. He is able to obtain medical care.

    He can’t pay for it, though.

  8. From the FA:

    The poverty level is the official measure used to decide eligibility for federal health, housing, nutrition and child care benefits. It differs by family size and makeup. For a family of four with two children, for example, the poverty level is $20,444.

    So this is the part that Mr. Wiegel leaves out…all those people who are living a “generally positive” life under the poverty level are doing so because of the welfare state.

  9. do poverty estimates only take into account gross income, or what someone would be able to pay for out of pocket? Or do they take into account net income, adjusting for the value of food stamps, medicaid, and housing subsidies?

  10. I’m going to get all my information about poverty from The Heritage Foundation.

    gaijin: Your last post basically admits that Joe has a point, but maybe he used harder words. And here’s what I’ll tell the 369,000 people no longer in poverty: enjoy your extra $12, and we’ll see ya back on the list next year.

  11. I say Bill Pope has a point. If we deducted people’s debt from their assets, I’d bet there would be more poor people.

  12. So our mixed economy* is working. Great!

    *mixed economy n. An economic system that allows for the simultaneous operation of publicly and privately owned enterprises.

  13. all those people who are living a “generally positive” life under the poverty level are doing so because of the welfare state.

    More likely “despite the welfare state.”

  14. It’s yet another definition-related problem. Like when “average-weighted” became “obese.” Now, when someone says obese, you have to ask whether they mean obese compared to everyone else, or obese compared to objective standards. Similarly, there’s “the poor” who are like 10% of the country, and then there’s “the hella poor who actually live like we envision poor people living as compared to those that live like middle class people lived 30 years ago.”

    People (MADD, gun control advocates, children’s advocates) who insist on “doing something” always tell stories of the more extreme subgroup while quoting statistics of the larger definition.

    Hell, some (most?) libertarians do it to keep the populace riled up about government overreach (the fact that we’re promptly ignored doesn’t change the fact that some of us do it.)

    This is no different. Unfortunately, so few people understand things like “percent,” “median” and “subgroup” that the majority of the unwashed mass would be better informed without hearing these statistics and instead relying solely on anecdotal evidence.

  15. More likely “despite the welfare state.”

    Why do you say that? Probably for the same reason a fundamentalist Christian says that dinosaur bones are there to test our faith. A working welfare state doesn’t comport will with what you learned in libertarian catechism, does it?

  16. Yet the cult of John Edwards shows no signs of thinning.

    I don’t think libertarians should be tossing around the word “cult.” To quote a famous libertarian, pot, meet kettle.

  17. I am not in favor of welfare “solutions,” blah, blah, libertarian disclaimer, blah, blah…
    That said, a couple of Saturdays every month I am in a position to see a lot of poor people who come looking for food, help with transportation, medical services, shelter, and so on. There are lots of needs out there that are unmet. This is no time for patting ourselves on the back. We may be a very prosperous nation, but we could be more so.

  18. Why do you say that?

    Why did’t you also ask Dan T. why he said “because of” as well?

    Oh I wait, I know – Probably for the same reason a fundamentalist Christian says that dinosaur bones are there to test our faith. A parasitic welfare state that actually hurts the poor rather than helps them by reducing the number of jobs and the amount of wealth the economy produces through the level of taxation needed to support itself doesn’t comport will with what you learned in liberal catechism, does it?

    At any rate my simple assertion was no more baseless than Dan T.s’ that I responded to. They were both just statements of opinion.

  19. “I don’t think libertarians should be tossing around the word “cult.” To quote a famous libertarian, pot, meet kettle.”

    Weren’t you leaving?

  20. Brian,

    Your faith in Libertopia is touching. Every successful economy in the world is a mixed economy with a lively public sector and, even here in the U.S.A, a welfare safety net. We just don’t know how a completely privatized economy would work, but you’re never going to get many takers on giving it a try. That’s why libertarians will always be a marginal little maturbatory cult.

  21. gaijin: Your last post basically admits that Joe has a point…

    I freely admit Joe has a point…he usually does…my point was in asking if such ‘harder’ words change the interpretation…basically.

  22. As I noted here, in a response to Robert Rector making the same argument in an article in 2004, his list of “things the typical poor American household owns” is completely inaccurate. To quote myself:

    The author appears to have simply taken a bunch of items that individually appear in more than 50% of poor households, and stuck them all together as if they were items that all appear together in more than 50% of poor households. In reality, the “typical American defined as poor” probably has one or two of the things in that list, but I would be surprised if more than a very small percentage of them had all of these things, as it is presented here.

    The point he’s trying to make, that poor people in America today are better off than poor people in virtually any other time or place, is a valid and important one, but this sort of blatant misuse of statistics is not the way to make that point.

  23. Isildur

    Yes! Thanks for reminding me. I have no self-control. If only I weren’t wealthy and had to work. Okay, goodbye, and this time I mean it. God, this is a fucking waste of time.

  24. enjoy your extra $12, and we’ll see ya back on the list next year.

    Lamar: is that a real number or one used merely for affect?

  25. > More likely “despite the welfare state.”

    Why do you say that?

    Where was poverty and economic stagnation more prevalent, pre-1990 — Western Europe or Eastern Europe?

  26. We just don’t know how a completely privatized economy would work, but you’re never going to get many takers on giving it a try.

    Edward — while we don’t have an example of a completely privatized economy, since statists like you keep dragging the gummint into it, we do have stacks of statistics and historical examples (say, North versus South Korea) showing a strong positive correlation between 1) freedom and less intrusiveness of government, and 2) prosperity, happiness, and lack of poverty. So it’s not a huge cognitive leap to imagine even more prosperity, happiness, and lack of poverty if we trimmed back the welfare/warfare state and became by far the free-est country on earth.

  27. I find this “generally positive” argument difficult to swallow.

    As one of the educated/overworked poor, I can say that I do not and may never be able to have 1) a car, 2) a washer/dryer, 3) a television, 4) a land line, 5) a stereo, or 6) health care (no insurance).

    I do have 1) an iPod, 2) a laptop, 3) a penchant for good wine, 4) a taste for fine food, 5) fluff and fold across the street to do my laundry, 6) three academic jobs.

    That analysis blows–it’s a generalization of suburban “worth is material” values.

  28. That’s why libertarians will always be a marginal little maturbatory cult.

    Heh. Stop it Edward, it’s too early to start drinking.

    But hey, if you want to take comfort in the greater numbers your side has, go for it. Being just like everyone else seems to suit some people who lack a certain level of confidence in themselves.

    Okay, goodbye, and this time I mean it.

    I forget how many drinks the I’m leaving/cancel my subscription comments are worth. Does it increase with each repetition?

  29. “. . . a third of poor households have both cellular and landline telephones. A third also have telephone answering machines. At the other extreme, however, approxi?mately one-tenth have no phone at all.”

    If this came from a telephone survey, I have to question its data.

  30. while the majority of poor households do not expe?rience significant material problems, roughly 30 percent do experience at least one problem such as overcrowding, temporary hunger, or difficulty get?ting medical care.

    So, in fact, only about a third of the “poor” are actually poor, then?

    When did “poor” change from “lacking the fundamentals of human survival” to “not living in the lap of luxury”?

  31. Perhaps the definition of “poor” in America need a rethinking if such huge portions of that definition include people with two color TVs and two types of phone service.

    It would be nice if we actually knew who and how many people where actually in need.

  32. So about 12 million Americans regularly suffer from poverty so dire that they have trouble getting enough food, a decent roof over their heads, or a visit to the doctor when they need it.

    If that was all my tax money went to, feeding clothing housing and caring for the health of, 12 million people and nothing else I think there would be no need for being a libertarian seeing as how cheap our taxes would be…what is that like 1-2% income tax generating more then enough to pay for these peoples way?

  33. It’s so hard to have reasonable conversations on these topics. There are people in rough situations. There are people who haven’t been treated well by our society. We need to find ways to help in those situations.

    However, I’m so tired of the widespread habit of just throwing out blatant generalizations with absolutely no evidence, which color the poor as a group as helpless souls with no hope for a better life. Any sign of their improvement is written off as temporary or the result of debt, etc. The speaker or poster spits out some cynical concoction & then stomps off, full of the righteous indignation of vague concern.
    I will note that I live comfortably enough to hope for early retirement, and that my social security administration history of wages is filled with years of poverty level income from when I was in school or having a slow year in business. My own earnings history would statistically be an awful picture of a 2-tiered society.
    There are people who are struggling, and these types of statistics are almost entirely meaningless in trying to find something out about those people.

    And, if our society was a perfect meritocracy with complete independence of earnings power between generations, 25% of the population would still be in the lowest quartile, and 6 1/4% would still be 2nd generation lowest quartile. But, in most cases, even if someone in their 20’s is a second generation lower quartile person, their parents are very likely to be in their 40’s or 50’s, at the high point of their earning power & in a higher quartile. People are moving in & out of these categories all the time. I think all anybody has to do is to look at our own extended families to see how much mobility there is, and how much variation there can be in income even among people who come from exactly the same family background.

  34. I’m hoping I’m not the only libertarian who recognizes the need for some sort of true “safety net”. The costs of crime caused by true poverty outweigh the costs of using tax dollars to meet the needs of the truly poor.

    The question is: how do you define the truly poor, and how do you tailor a safety net to accommodate them without the potential for gross abuse?

    Frankly, I think the system we have works as perfectly as we’re likely find, and anyone on either end of the spectrum of doing too much vs. not doing enough needs to do a better job of presenting their case.

  35. difficulty get?ting medical care

    Given how far in advance I have to schedule a visit to my doc, I could fairly answer “yes” to this question. I wouldn’t put to much weight on it as an indicator of suffering and deprivation without a lot tighter definition.

  36. Johnny D,

    I’m also one who’s not particularly bothered by a safety net in place, as long as it’s modest and temporary, and not “generous” to the point where it begets a cyclical way-of-life.

    Like most here I’m sure, I’m an active supporter of charity and every dollar/canned good/piece of clothing that gets to the poor, the better.

    Having said that…

    [cold cynic]

    …what is endlessly irritating is the leftist class warfare drivel, where the “have nots” are blameless saints and the “haves” are lucky/greedy SOBs who are at fault for the former’s lot in life. I know every situation is different from each other and I’m not suggesting painting with a broad brush here. But making some common sense decision-making might help some of those 12 million avoid their predicament: quit spitting out kids when you can’t afford them; ease up on pricey vices such as cigarettes and gambling; hold down a job without coming into work consistently late, hungover, stoned, etc, basically asking to get canned; pay attention in school, etc.

    I’m definitely not saying that lifting oneself out of poverty is easy. But those little cognizant choices do go a long way.

    [/cold cynic]

  37. I’m hoping I’m not the only libertarian who recognizes the need for some sort of true “safety net”. The costs of crime caused by true poverty outweigh the costs of using tax dollars to meet the needs of the truly poor.

    The question is: how do you define the truly poor, and how do you tailor a safety net to accommodate them without the potential for gross abuse?

    Frankly, I think the system we have works as perfectly as we’re likely find, and anyone on either end of the spectrum of doing too much vs. not doing enough needs to do a better job of presenting their case.

    Hayek supported a safety net and I think he was/is right, but I agree, what exactly does “poor” mean? I know people who make more than the federally-recognized poverty level, but still have trouble making ends meet and they don’t even spend a lot on material items.

  38. But making some common sense decision-making might help some of those 12 million avoid their predicament: quit spitting out kids when you can’t afford them; ease up on pricey vices such as cigarettes and gambling; hold down a job without coming into work consistently late, hungover, stoned, etc, basically asking to get canned; pay attention in school, etc.

    Well (and here’s where I get in trouble), it pays to remember that we are all animals. Some people cannot control their instincts when it comes to the vices you mentioned, but that doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned to a live in squalor. It’s just a far more difficult problem than people on both sides would admit, and one with no easy solution. I still believe that the current system will someday be looked upon as the best compromise, even though some people abuse it and some people still suffer.

  39. “The poor,” by the federal definition, are such a diverse lot that it’s hard to make useful generalizations. I know quite a few people who fall into that category. They include:

    ? graduate students, whose poverty is temporary
    ? Christians doing missionary work
    ? elderly citizens, who often have considerable assets but little income
    ? relatively recent immigrants, some legal, some illegal, some of whom work very hard
    ? people who work part-time, sometimes by choice, sometimes not
    ? women who got pregnant young, with few skills
    ? people with little reported income but significant “off the books” income
    ? unemployed people who have little income now but have good skills and future prospects
    ? unemployed people who have few skills and future prospects
    ? mentally retarded or disturbed people who have trouble holding a job

    These people have little in common with each other. Data like the above are useful partly because they remind people that most of “the poor” don’t fit their preconceptions. Before drawing any policy implications, one needs to know how many of the poor fit into which categories.

  40. I believe there was a typo in your article. You obviously meant to say “Yet the cult of John Edwards shows no signs of thinking.”

    FYI- the “k” is kitty-corner from the “n”. Its an easy mistake to make, anyone could have done it.

  41. I recently hired a carpenter to do some work. He insisted on being paid in cash. Do you think he might be one of the ‘poor’ people with no visible income?

  42. And here’s what I’ll tell the 369,000 people no longer in poverty: enjoy your extra $12, and we’ll see ya back on the list next year.

    When we were no longer in poverty, we were better off by more than $12. That was over 30 years ago now, and altho we passed thru a rough patch when the union priced my wife out of a job, our situation has generally kept improving. Today we own our home free and clear, are debt free, and are able to maintain a pleasant lifestyle without much effort.

    BTW, getting out of poverty was mostly a result of deciding that getting to work on time was more important than getting high.

  43. My daughter just graduated college and took a GOOD job with a national news media company. Her starting-level income puts her well below the poverty line. She rents a furnished apartment with all the mentioned devices – it costs roughly 1/2 of her income. She has no debt – no college loans, no credit cards.

    Importantly, she will not likely be living below the poverty line 24 months from now, but she will be replaced in the statistics by another recent college graduate.

  44. Joe, I think you’re missing the point. No one’s saying it’s not bad that people are poor, it’s just a little strange to hear 2/3 of 21st century “poor” people live considerably better than the middle class did in the 1950s.

    A 4% poverty rate is not the same as a 12% poverty rate. At 4%, you have a fair number of voluntary poor and people who just don’t function well enough to perform useful tasks which can earn them a decent living. Nothing but lottery tickets is going to affect their situation.

    And I have some idea of whence I speak re poverty. When I was 18, I was living out of my car. The only government aid I ever took was education-related. Now, twleve years and two degrees later, I have a six-figure income. The best anti-poverty government program is education.

  45. Johnny D.

    Well (and here’s where I get in trouble), it pays to remember that we are all animals. Some people cannot control their instincts when it comes to the vices you mentioned, but that doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned to a live in squalor.

    While I understand where you’re coming from, I think it begs the question of why they can’t control their instincts. At risk of sounding cynical or cruel, why should they? Rationally, I don’t think they are necessarily being foolish given the continued extension of the safety net. There is a consistent pattern in the vices QSL cites: they’re fun at the time, but lead to squalor and misery in the future. If society is willing to externalize the squalor and misery, it would seem downright silly (at least for some part of the population) to forego the fun.

  46. gaijin: for effect. Just pointing out that the “poverty line” is an objective line where some people in some places might have a TV and money for vodka, whereas in other places one couldn’t possibly hope to survive as a human being.

  47. Good grief! Why argue this when really, the title of this post just kicks ass!

  48. “experience at least one problem such as overcrowding, temporary hunger, or difficulty get?ting medical care.”

    “difficulty getting medical care” does not mean that they do not healthcare coverage, it means they live out in the middle of nowhere in Arizona desert and there’s not any doctors nearby.

    People who are in poverty have Medicaid coverage. That is completely different thing from being able to get to a doctor.

    Temporary hunger is pretty common problem among everybody at lower incomes who does not have food stamps or assistance. When the bottom fell out of the tech bubble I was eating Ramen noodles and peanut butter for a while there. I would say that I experienced temporary hunger during that period.

    This is actually the more important point–while there is always 12-13% of the population classified as living in poverty (less than half the median income), almost all of it is temporary. We have massive levels of income mobility in this country, and a lot of people go between poor and middle class and back and forth. There have been lots of long-term studies here.

  49. LBJ’s Great Society is upon us. Thank goodness.

    Others may lament that our poor people are not destitute enough but I say that we have the finest poor people in the world and I’m okay with that.

  50. To quote one of my fellow graduate students, recently from India:

    “The most astonishing thing about America is to hear the media talking about the obesity epidemic afflicting the poor.”

  51. Some facts to throw into the discussion:
    1. The federal government defines hunger as anything less than three meals a day.
    2. The U.S. poverty rate has been between 11% and 13% since 1970 (despite $7 trillion in spending on poverty).
    3. Obesity is one of the biggest health problems of the poor.
    4. Many of the 12.3% of Americans in poverty are under age 25 and/or a minority. After they acquire job skills and experience they tend to move out of poverty and into the middle class.
    5. Most of the children living in poverty are born to single women under the age of 25 with no job and few job skills. Many of these women are also members of a minority group.
    6. Most of the people who earn minimum wage are 16-year-olds living in households with annual incomes over $55,000.

  52. We must also consider that the “poverty” level remains fairly consistent over time because we import — legally and illegally — millions of people destined to be in poverty. Let’s see, if there were several million fewer uneducated Hispanics floating around, maybe that poverty level would be down a few percent by now.

    And the fact is that other than people with serious disabilities, nobody willing to play by the rules of civilized society will be below the poverty level for long. For instance, married couples are close to non-existent in poverty statistics, while single mothers jam the ranks.

    The underground/illegal economy probably also doesn’t register here. Does the local drug dealer — technically unemployed — show up as a poverty statistic? Probably. Though he’s wearing $200 sneakers and driving a BMW.

    Years ago, PJ O’Rourke made a trenchant observation. He reported wandering around a “poor” neighborhood, noting the shiny new footwear on all the children’s feet, the TVs glowing through every window, the car in every driveway, while the neighborhood nevertheless was nasty, dirty and felt dangerous. And he noted that we don’t have poor neighborhoods in America, we have lousy neighborhoods. That’s a very important difference.

    Poverty, for almost everyone in it, is now a lifestyle choice. It’s not 1933 any more.

  53. Another reason “poverty” levels remain consistent is because poverty is defined as “less than half the median income”. A rising tide raises the low-water mark, and people who used to be considered as lower middle class suddenly get flagged as living in poverty.

  54. Given the fact that most people here have have an educated opinion, I find it astonishing/ironic that of the “facts” found, there are no references identified. That’s how you screw with statistics and studies – don’t give access to source data. it’s astonishing how you can twist a study if you just present half-baked conclusions.

    also astonishing is how many people will believe you.

    joey, your list (perhaps accurate, i’m not looking it up now) just looks fishy.

  55. @ Caitlin
    joey, your list (perhaps accurate, i’m not looking it up now) just looks fishy.
    Here is information on minimum wage.

    http://www.bls.gov/cps/minwage2006.htm

  56. 1. The federal government defines hunger as anything less than three meals a day.

    No wonder I’m still hungry after snacking all day.

  57. If it weren’t for “the poor” there wouldn’t be a Democrat party.
    Lefties would have nothing to complain about.
    No Hit & Run. No need for it!
    No three-year election cycles. No FEMA trailers.
    O! horrible, horrible world!

  58. Ursus,

    You are correct. Do you remember after the 2000 census they had to jigger the numbers to “redifine” poverty? If they had used the old system, we would have less poverty than we do now, here is from there website:

    http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/povmeas/topicpg2.html

  59. Some people cannot control their instincts when it comes to the vices you mentioned, but that doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned to a live in squalor.

    Some people become destitute through no fault of their own (health problems, layoffs, etc.), while others do so because of their own poor choices. It may not be warm and fuzzy to say that, but it’s the truth. Reinforcing and subsidizing those poor choices only makes them happen again and again. People need to learn to be responsible for the consequences of their actions.

    I don’t want my tax dollars going to support people whose situation is their own fault, just as I wouldn’t expect anyone else’s tax money to support me if I were in the same boat.

  60. One more thing, totally OT–has anyone else had trouble posting comments to this site using Safari? I had to go to Firefox to get mine to work.

  61. I live in the bottom quintile.

    Life is good. If you pay attention on garbage day you can get free working TVs and computers. Couches. Various other assorted furniture.

    If we stop to check something out and it is not in good enough condition we pass it by. We have standards. Because there is so much.

    You used to be able to tell easily who the poor were. They were thin due to not enough to eat. Ragged clothes. In America the poor are fat. They don’t dress in rags.

    No King in 1800 had central air. Or flush toilets. Or central heat. Or running hot water.

    Comparative poverty we will always have (where is my iPod?). Real poverty not so much.

  62. Can someone do the research for me? I’m interested.

    If you took the yearly government expenditure on all the programs devoted to fighting poverty, and divided it among the number of households estimated to live in poverty (minus the number of people under 18 living in non-poor households), how much per household would that come to?

  63. Even those considered the most improvished in America do not starve on street corners. At my advanced age I can state I have never seen anyone starve on street corners of America. AND neither has anyone reading this comment. Yes, there have been a few with a needle stuck in their arm that have in fact “starved” in a drug house becuase the herion got them. Go to the web sites of the left and you will think you have missed soemthing because they talk as if America’s poor is the same as Africa’s poor. Not so. Luv ya out there- keep remembering what Genesco (waiting for Godot-french playwright) said about America “the most generious country that ever has been on earth- the best!”

  64. Yeah, being “poor” in America isn’t about starving. The left is offended simply by the fact that some people have more than other people. Their solution is and has always been to steal a bit of wealth from “the rich” and distribute it to “the poor.” They often use religious teachings to justify this theft. Resist them and you’re a heartless atheist, or worse — a capitalist.

  65. “So this is the part that Mr. Wiegel leaves out…all those people who are living a ‘generally positive’ life under the poverty level are doing so because of the welfare state.”

    “Let ’em eat brakes.”

    That’s what I always say.

  66. Genesco (waiting for Godot-french playwright)

    Samuel Beckett wrote WFG. Are you by any chance referring to the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco (La cantatrice chauve)?

  67. The point is – if your heart is breaking because someone is poorer than you are comfortable with, go help them. That is your business. But stop supporting government theft so that you can falsely believe you are doing good.

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