Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On yesterday’s welfare reform announcements

February 28th, 2012

We’ve all become more politically literate the hard way over the last couple of decades. The words “efficient” and “greater efficiency” for instance, has been forced into service so many times that’s they’re now a genuine alarm signal – a crutch for politicians seeking to replace a current public service with a shoddy inferior version that will cost less to provide. In similar vein, yesterday’s announcement of the government’s next stage of welfare reform was stacked, top to bottom, with a series of buzz words, tortured statistics and bogus statistics.

My favourite interlude was probably the moment when Social Development Minister Paula Bennett took off on a rhetorical flight and depicted the welfare state as something created in 1935 and active in the 1960s, but which now had to be made so, so modern – “so that it’s ready for 2012, and going forward”. Social mores have changed, Bennett rhapsodized, so have peoples’ needs, so has technology – “and the government felt an obligation to keep up with that”. All this being a preface to a get-meaner set of attitudes to force beneficiaries into work (complete with $10 rewards for the deserving poor) that comes straight out of the 19th century.

Underpinning the reforms, Bennett explained, was ‘an investment approach’ – more details promised next year – “that will change long term, who we work with, and who we spend money on”. [Except unlike its sympathetic stance to finance company speculators, the government won’t be bailing out these investments, and is intent on making it tougher this time for the people concerned to get their money.]

The reforms will be brought into effect in stages.

From July, up to 14,000 teenagers aged 16 and 17 who are not in education, work or training and teen parents aged 16 to 18 will be coupled with a private provider to help them with budgeting courses, parenting courses, training or job-hunting. Their basic costs such as rent and power will be paid by the state, and they will have a payment card for living costs that can be monitored to ensure they do not buy alcohol or cigarettes. They will receive an allowance of up to $50 a week, but this can increase by $10 a week for a good attendance record at school or for completing a budgeting or parenting course…..

From October, the 30,000 people on the domestic purposes, widow’s or woman-alone benefits will have to be work-tested for part-time employment once their youngest child turns 5, and for full-time roles when their youngest child turns 14. Having an extra child while on a benefit will only bring a 12-month reprieve from these obligations – a disincentive to having more children.

Bennett and Prime Minister John Key both cited the large numbers of people on benefits as a sign that the current welfare system isn’t working. In Key’s opinion, the current welfare system is “on a pathway, in my view, to not being economically sustainable”. Well, it doesn’t take a vast institutional memory to refute the “not economically sustainable” claim. Less than ten years ago, a booming economy had reduced beneficiary numbers to historical lows. Meaning: when the economy is even reasonably healthy, welfare is eminently affordable. When it isn’t, the jobs don’t exist to make welfare reform socially sustainable.

Reason being, welfare is not the root cause of the problem. Blaming the welfare system for the current existence of poverty is like seeing the incidence of Third World diseases in this country, and blaming it on the existence of hospitals. Similarly, the social safety net does not cause people to live in poverty and be out of work – it is an effect, not a cause. And the current state of the welfare rolls is precisely what you would expect to find when the jobs market is barely off its sick bed after the global recession.

The current (and temporary) existence of large numbers on welfare is what people pay their taxes for: for help in time of need, a need which can happen to anyone. Instead, the current dire economic situation is being used as a pretext to shrink the social safety net, for reasons that have little to do with social need, or the vagaries of the business cycle. It has more to do with an ideology: Social Darwinism, thinly disguised as compassionate conservatism.

All Key has to do if he wants to reduce the reliance on welfare is to fulfil his side of the social contract – and manage the economy in a way that returns the economy to health and growth. Yet during yesterday’s announcement though, there was absolutely no sign of Key accepting any liability for that role – accountability, it seems, is only for those at the bottom of the heap. The injustice of this ‘blame the victim’ approach came gift wrapped in yesterday’s announcement with the usual half truths and bogus statistics.

For example: according to Bennett, there were no benefit cuts in yesterday’s package. Yet once these DPB reforms kick in later this year, a woman currently on the DPB will be work tested for full time work once her youngest child turns 14 – and if she doesn’t find a job, she will be moved to a job seeker allowance that pays less money. Technically, no benefit has been cut – but try telling the theological difference to someone who has just been forcibly moved from one benefit to a different benefit that entails a cut in income.

And if yesterday’s package was about incentives and rewards, what kind of signal about the value of parenting and family life is being sent when a solo parent (almost invariably it is a woman) who raises a child on their own, and is then told to go out and get a “real job” as soon as her youngest child turns 14. I know a lot of low income, two parent families have it hard too – but is that a good reason for making it even harder for people who are raising kids on their own? Or was all that stuff about the value of mothering and family life and being there for your kids mere lip service all along? Or is parenting a value that’s you know, not economically sustainable?

That brings me to the last statistic that has been tortured into service here. Yesterday, Bennett claimed that “the average duration on the DPB is 7 to 10 years”. Wow. Most of the public will take that as Bennett intended, as confirmation that hey, the DPB is Easy Street. They would be being willfully misled. Frankly, if she wants to get all modern and 2012 on us, Bennett has to square that claim with her own department’s latest published benefit statistics, for the quarter ended December 2011. Take a look at them here.

They show that two thirds of those currently raising dependent children on the DPB (66.7% of all recipients) are receiving this benefit for a relatively brief period, of between 12 months and four years. The number receiving the DPB for between four and ten years is less than a quarter (23.7%) of recipients. Less than one in ten recipients are on the DPB for ten years or more. In other words for the vast majority, the system isn’t broken, and the DPB is functioning exactly as it is intended to do – to provide support for a relatively brief period to women left with the care of children after a marital split or relationship breakdown, or when their partner has been violent and abusive.

As for the other stereotypes about the DPB… over half of the recipients are aged between 25 and 39, and 77.7% fall into the category of those aged 25-54. To repeat: this benefit exists to provide an income to mature women and their children in the wake of a relationship breakdown. Despite all the tabloid bullshit about teen mothers on the DPB, a bigger proportion of the people on the DPB are aged 55-64 (4.5%) than the paltry figure of 3% of recipients aged 18-19.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we are forcing people off welfare at exactly the wrong point in the economic cycle – before the jobs have re-appeared, assuming they ever will. In the meantime, making people leave their children at home alone, while they chase after non-existent jobs is a recipe for misery, and for further social problems down the track.

After all, the task of raising children is hard enough for anyone. But when there is only parent to cope with the stress and loneliness and financial hardship that often accompanies a relationship breakdown involving children, it is much, much harder. Why as a society, do we show so little compassion for people in this situation, the vast majority of whom would have wanted to raise their children with a loving and non–abusive partner?

The fact that these miserable and miserly reform policies apparently enjoy wide public approval should be taken as a sign of how bitterly depressed New Zealand has become. We are being invited to turn on each other. If blame has to be levelled, it should be being directed at those politicians who are currently skiving off from their job of fostering an economic climate in which real work opportunities at decent pay actually exist. Because if you want to enforce responsibility on those at the bottom, maybe there should be a lot more responsibility being shouldered by those at the top.

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    1. 32 Responses to “On yesterday’s welfare reform announcements”

    2. By David on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      It’t the economy stupid. Now fix it!

    3. By Lindsay Mitchell on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      “That brings me to the last statistic that has been tortured into service here. Yesterday, Bennett claimed that “the average duration on the DPB is 7 to 10 years”. Wow. Most of the public will take that as Bennett intended, as confirmation that hey, the DPB is Easy Street. They would be being willfully misled. Frankly, if she wants to get all modern and 2012 on us, Bennett has to square that claim with her own department’s latest published benefit statistics, for the quarter ended December 2011. Take a look at them here.

      They show that two thirds of those currently raising dependent children on the DPB (66.7% of all recipients) are receiving this benefit for a relatively brief period, of between 12 months and four years. The number receiving the DPB for between four and ten years is less than a quarter (23.7%) of recipients. Less than one in ten recipients are on the DPB for ten years or more.”

      Gordon, The periods in the benefit factsheets refer to current spell only. Many people have repeated spells on the DPB hence the longer period for average all-up duration. It isn’t hard to understand.

      “As for the other stereotypes about the DPB… over half of the recipients are aged between 25 and 39, and 77.7% fall into the category of those aged 25-54. To repeat: this benefit exists to provide an income to mature women and their children in the wake of a relationship breakdown. Despite all the tabloid bullshit about teen mothers on the DPB, a bigger proportion of the people on the DPB are aged 55-64 (4.5%) than the paltry figure of 3% of recipients aged 18-19.”

      This ignores that at least a third (and probably as many as a half) of people on the DPB began on welfare as teenagers. Naturally only a small proportion are teenagers at any point in time because they quickly move into the older age-bands. But they are consistently replaced by more.

      I have pointed this out to you before but it is conveniently forgotten.

      Understanding sub-groups of sole parents receiving main benefits, http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/research/sole-parenting/index.html

    4. By Cynical on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      Actually Gordon, once a solo parent youngest child is 5, they will (or at least should) be in school from 9am until mid-afternoon (longer if after-school care is used). Strangely many businesses are also open from 9am until at least mid-afternoon. This gives the solo parent time to do what other job seekers do, look for work. They are not going to be leaving their child at home alone as you contend.

      It is also very surprising to hear (all the time) that there are no jobs available for job-seekers. There are always jobs vacancies being advertised in shop windows on Lambton Quay and Willis St, and in the various malls around Wellington, Lower Hutt and Porirua. A young school leaver I know has managed to get a job the old fashioned way. She walked into the stores, and asked if there was a job opening. She now has a job. Time taken less than 2 months. Time on benefit 0 days. It can be done, you just have to be willing to work.

    5. By Android on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      analyst of welfare reforms, this National Government is guilty of political turpitude. 

    6. By Robert M on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      Who would want to work in a low paying job. Social mobility has long ceased to be possible in advanced economies of western type. The assertion by the likes of Paula Bennett or Murial Newman that work is way to get ahead seems unlikely. There is compelling evidence in the United States that is impossible for working class people to get a decent college degree because it is impossible for them to finance more than 2 years of studies and class gap is now unbridgeable. Sport and Organised crime seem obviously more attractive ways to get ahead even to a lot of people in NZ.
      Wages are actually so low in NZ that there’s hardly any point in the established middle class working in this country. Welfare and working in the black economy has always been quite an attractive option for quite a lot of middle class people in NZ. There are plenty of educated middle class students, DPB’s and high level health workers who have found the sex industry more lucrative and far easier work than low paying jobs as waitresses, cleaners or industrial psychologists.
      Outside NZs enforced equality and social control with a big slice of PC, in the real world outside Aotearoa nobody’s going to get ahead unless they are good looking, intelligent, pleasant and have a degree.
      I can’t see a 30 year old wanting to work in McDonald’s and it seems to me caring for the alzheimers or serioulsy intellectually disabled is so degrading all round, that nobody should be forced to do it. Maybe their’s a case for Dutch style active euthanasia rather than voluntary. Womens selling point is largely their looks and manner rather than their qualifications so maybe DPB’s should just be given a years gym membership and 24 hour childcare. Surely a right to a good body and sex life is everbodies right.
      I don’t see the abudance of jobs- given that I’m sure most NZ places of works and services would run more efficiently with half the present workfore, even supermarkets.
      Tight regulations on opening bars, putting up buildings restricts job opportunities . You probably wouldn’t get approval to open hooters or a hard rock club in Vulcan lane. I mean to me their should be numerous drinking establishments and clubs in Devonport, Mission Bay and Grey Lyn but family values and the likes of Dick Quax make development impossible.
      I mean I could go out at 3am mid week in courtenay place, ten years ago and it was rocking now Auckland and Wellington are closed down at that hour. To me the future of real employment in the world is about sex, pleasure, holidays, lying in the sun and being allowed to do what you want and buy what you want, when you want to, from who you want.

    7. By Pauline on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      Dear John Key,

      What difference is the current law with modern dictatorship? Your relocation law is so tough and expensive. I am a solo mum on the benefit and forced to stay in NZ because of a Non-removal order on my child. So let’s see how my life is
      1) You can go home but leave your child behind – deprive of being a mother!
      2) Stay in NZ but please get off the benefit – deprive of being a mother!
      3) Apply to relocate home but you must be prepared for failure and have $20k. If I have $20k, I wouldnt be on the benefit!
      4) My child is given the non-removal order on the basis of the father but hey, the father doesnt need to provide much. Just minimal child support and push the woman to the government benefit – how convenient! Once on the benefit, you dont get child support.

    8. By Nik on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      Repeat after me: Anecdotes are not the same as data. Anecdotes are not the same as data.

    9. By Joe Blow on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      This government is pulling off one of the biggest con jobs of all time! They’ve created a government revenue problem by slashing taxes, which has left us with a yawning government deficit they keep borrowing to feed. This they claim will create jobs that never come and now they are claiming that the dole ques keep getting longer because the Welfare System doesn’t work not because they’re ideologically driven fiscal policy isn’t working!

      Where’s the economic growth you keep promising Mr Key? Where are the jobs!

    10. By Lindsay on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      Gordon wrote, “Less than ten years ago, a booming economy had reduced beneficiary numbers to historical lows.”

      Only unemployment beneficiary numbers (not the subject of the reforms under discussion).

      Look at the graph on page 9 here:

      http://ips.ac.nz/WelfareWorkingGroup/Downloads/Issues%20Paper/Welfare-Working-Group-Long-Term-Benefit-Dependency-The%20Issues-Summary.doc

      “My favourite interlude was probably the moment when Social Development Minister Paula Bennett took off on a rhetorical flight and depicted the welfare state as something created in 1935 and active in the 1960s, but which now had to be made so, so modern – “so that it’s ready for 2012, and going forward”. Social mores have changed, Bennett rhapsodized, so have peoples’ needs, so has technology – “and the government felt an obligation to keep up with that”.”

      Women now make up half of the workforce, half of tertiary education rolls; are out- performing men educationally; and can control their fertility to an unprecedented degree. Social circumstances are vastly different from the 1970s, even more so, the 1930s.

    11. By Rob on Feb 28, 2012 | Reply

      When the protagonists start to value children who will be our future we will start to go forward!

    12. By Curtis Nixon on Feb 29, 2012 | Reply

      Good on you Gordon, you nailed it!
      I just put in my submission on the Green Paper on Vulnerable Children, but before I did I was annoyed to hear that P. Bennett wasn’t interested in hearing about child poverty being a major risk factor/underlying cause of harm to vulnerable children. Just ignore that elephant in the room Paula and instead focus on punitive and/or cosmetic changes.
      I think Gareth Morgan has it right with his ‘Big Kahuna’ idea of a universal payment to all citizens, coupled with a capital tax. Poor people don’t have much capital so they can spend their’s on living expenses, and middle class and rich people can use their’s to offset their capital tax. Perfect!

    13. By Fortunate on Feb 29, 2012 | Reply

      When a 5 year old starts school, their parent may need to stay with them some mornings, will need to be available to pick them up if they are sick, and will have to continue to parent. The kind of jobs your school leaver went for are unlikely to be sympathetic to the needs of the single parent. They are also unlikely to pay a wage that can sustain a family. $13.50 an hour for 20 hours a week (9:30am – 2:30pm Monday to Friday, allowing for school drop off and pick up) = $270 a week before tax. Add in a spot of Working for Families and the accommodation supplement and you’re still talking less than $500 a week. In Wellington, where you’re seeing all these jobs, that would cover the rent and maybe leave $100 for everything else.

    14. By Marian on Feb 29, 2012 | Reply

      In this clip from question time today, Paula Bennett seems to be saying that beneficiaries get Working For Families. Does anyone know the circumstances in which this happens (if it does)? For part-time workers, perhaps? Don’t get it and appreciative of any assistance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-QjQzLCMLk

      @Pauline That’s a punitive aspect of the non-removal order that is new to me. Thank you for the info. Am wondering now how common it is, will be looking out for it.

    15. By Lindsay Mitchell on Feb 29, 2012 | Reply

      Curtis, Good on you for submitting.

      But I imagine that Paula Bennett isn’t wanting to hear about poverty as a major reason for harm because the poorest children – Pacific – are not over-respresented in the abuse and neglect findings anywhere near the degree that Maori children are. Many Asian families are also relatively poor but their children are rarely abused or neglected.

    16. By James on Mar 1, 2012 | Reply

      Keep spanking them with the facts Lindsay…..good stuff.

    17. By Curtis Nixon on Mar 2, 2012 | Reply

      Hi Marian
      All families are entitled to the ‘family tax credit’, beneficiary families included, (formerly called family benefit). See the attached link to IRD’s site. It is worth $88.00 per week for one child, I don’t know the rates for more children.
      WINZ or IRD pay this. but it seems to be not widely advertised.

      http://www.ird.govt.nz/wff-tax-credits/entitlement/who-qualifies/tested-benefits/

    18. By Curtis Nixon on Mar 2, 2012 | Reply

      Lindsay, there is much more to the complex of risk factors negatively impacting vulnerable children than child abuse. Some of them are over-crowded housing, no GP sign-up so A&E is de facto primary health provider, no family support or valuing of education (homes with no books), poor diet, poor exercise … I question the value of you falling into the easy trap of stereotyping of races of New Zealanders in your comment. Poverty, however, plays into all the other factors and if this administration fails to recognise that fact then they are simply conducting an exercise in smoke and mirrors. It’s the economy …

    19. By james on Mar 2, 2012 | Reply

      im sorry lindsey but everyone knows you have a thing against solo mothers and that your part of act

    20. By James on Mar 2, 2012 | Reply

      james….Lindsay does not “have a thing” against solo mums…she has a thing against the life destroying swamp that is welfarism..especially regarding children. Lindsay in fact walks her talk and has volunteered helping poor and desperate people on welfare for years….how about yourself….?

      And she is not a member of ACT.

    21. By Lindsay Mitchell on Mar 3, 2012 | Reply

      Curtis said,

      “I question the value of you falling into the easy trap of stereotyping of races of New Zealanders in your comment.”

      I use statistics that respond to how various media and advocates describe poverty. They frequently talk about one in four Pacific and one in three Maori children “living in poverty”. Check out CPAG material, The Salvation Army reports, the Child Health Monitor, the MSD Annual Social Report.

      Here’s someone else who thinks poverty is an over-used excuse.

      “Poverty, says Henare, is no excuse for abusing your family. He thinks back to his own childhood, in a dirt-floor home with no electricity and wonders how his parents managed to feed them all.“But I can recall nothing, but good.” ”

      http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/rise/issue-18/dream-the-impossible.html

    22. By Miriam on Mar 3, 2012 | Reply

      It would be nice if Lindsey was as concerned with creating the needed jobs, instead of using selected msd figures to support changes and cuts to social welfare.
      But surely you know that solo mums need jobs if the MSD take away the IRD job title of homemaker?

      Solo mums are already working, you (& the MSD) are really proposing mass redundancies. If I were a lawyer I would take the MSD to court on behalf of solo mums( their babies and children) of NZ.
      James( the second) social support does not destroy life.

    23. By Curtis Nixon on Mar 5, 2012 | Reply

      Lindsay, it is pretty obvious from your online profile that you have a settled set of prejudices that coincide with the Business Round Table, ACT and National Parties’ about social welfare.
      You seem to think that throwing some MSD statistics and propaganda at those who disagree counts as debate. It doesn’t.
      The situation in the western world is basically that our nation states have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by corrupt bankers who have bought their way into politics to enable their rip off tactics to be used (think the financialisation of toxic mortgages, or speculative profit-taking on food commodities, manipulating oil prices …)
      Then, without a shred of self-consciousness, these same predators have convinced everyone they are the best people to get things going again. Oh, yes, including trashing the public sector and stripping welfare beneficiaries of entitlements (while paying themselves handsome bonuses.) Who made his millions in a speculative attack on the NZD in 1987 and went on to be a poster child for the currency speculation world, before his next career as a politician?

    24. By Joe Blow on Mar 6, 2012 | Reply

      @ Lindsay Mitchell

      I’ve had a look through the info from your link to the MSD research and I could not see anything that states that a third of people on the DPB start while a teenager.

      Please provide us with the direct citation and the link to the specific pdf please.

      Furthermore, even if you are right and a third go on the DPB while they are teenagers, doesn’t that still undermine the “tabloid bullshit” stereotype of all women on the DPB being teenage mothers?

      Finally, please back up your assertion that the statistics provided by Gordon do not show the multiple spells that people are on the DPB with some reliable statistics. Surely, Paula Bennett hasn’t pulled her claim that “the average duration on the DPB is 7 to 10 years” out of thin air. You must be able to find some stats that support this assertion some where, right?

    25. By Jum on Mar 7, 2012 | Reply

      A woman with a child separates from her husband/partner but is already pregnant with another which does happen as the reality of looking after children on Mr Key’s ‘we would love to see wages drop’ low wages sets in.

      She then has that second child while on a benefit.

      She is then treated just the same as the few women who actually think it’s a good idea to have a child to get on the DPB – they do exist but they are a small group.

      John Key and his conservative allies such as exclusive brethren, destiny church and the arch conservative business rotundtable members’ goal is to have all women in a dependant position in society.

      That also means an abusive partner can use that to influence his partner to stay in the relationship as she is more and more reliant on support when expecting a new baby.

      Once more the neo-conservative Mr Key is socially engineering all New Zealand women.

      Shame they voted for him in their droves.

    26. By Lindsay Mitchell on Mar 9, 2012 | Reply

      Joe Blow,

      Understanding sub-groups of sole parents receiving main benefits, http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/research/sole-parenting/index.html

      “On average, sole parents receiving main benefits had more disadvantaged backgrounds than might have been expected:

      · just over half had spent at least 80% of the history period observed (the previous 10 years in most cases) supported by main benefits
      · a third appeared to have become parents in their teenage years.

      This reflects the over-representation of sole parents with long stays on benefit among those in receipt at any point in time, and the longer than average stays on benefit for those who become parents as teenagers.”

      Jum said,

      “A woman with a child separates from her husband/partner but is already pregnant with another which does happen as the reality of looking after children on Mr Key’s ‘we would love to see wages drop’ low wages sets in.

      She then has that second child while on a benefit.

      She is then treated just the same as the few women who actually think it’s a good idea to have a child to get on the DPB – they do exist but they are a small group.”

      I agree that there will need to be exemptions and the Minister refers to this in cabinet papers. The “small” group is 29 percent of current DPB recipients.

    27. By Miriam on Mar 10, 2012 | Reply

      Lindsay what an outrageous claim that 29 percent of DHB recipients have a child just to get on the DPB.
      In reality no survey was done on the current DHB recipients that would have given the msd a figure of 29%.
      Lets all be more concerned with job creation and corporate welfare, lets understand the big picture as the non independent msd estimates are inaccurate. How can an idea such as social welfare be sustainable for big corporates but not for poor solo mums.

    28. By Joe Blow on Mar 11, 2012 | Reply

      @ Lindsay Mitchell

      Stating that “just over half had spent at least 80% of the history period observed (the previous 10 years in most cases) supported by main benefits IS NOT the same as saying that “the average duration on the DPB is 7 to 10 years”.

      Where did Bennett get her stats from? Out of thin air?

      If only a third of sole parents on “main benefits” became parents in their teenage years, why is the government and mainstream media insinuating that all sole parents on the DPB are teenage mothers?

      Obviously, the vast majority have ended up on the DPB for other reasons than getting pregnant at a young age…

      Furthermore, of the “Early Starters” on the DPB(36% – young when oldest child born and when first received main benefits) only 58% were aged under 20 (i.e. teenagers) when their oldest child was born. Therefore, according to your research, only about 20% fit the stereotype of a teenage solo mother going straight on the DPB.

      Finally, the research also has an important disclaimer:

      “Had the research considered all people granted benefit as a sole parent, or all people who received benefit as a sole parent over a window of time rather than at a point in time, the overall profile of the group would have appeared less disadvantaged.”

    29. By Joe Blow on Mar 11, 2012 | Reply

      @ Lindsay Mitchell

      Come on, back up your claim that 29% of DPB recipients have a child to become eligible for the DPB.

    30. By james on Apr 20, 2012 | Reply

      Maybe she lost her hubby to a solo mother , its the only thing that could explain whe she is such a bitter woman.

    31. By Dee on May 3, 2012 | Reply

      Easy pickings, Mums.

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