Who is Struggling in Oregon’s Economy, Why, and What We Can Do about It

Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians work each week but still live in poverty. Tens of thousands of other Oregonians can’t work – so they are often stuck in poverty too. The best way to lower Oregon’s hunger and poverty rate and improve lives for kids and families is to make sure that everyone that is working, and can work, has a job that allows them to support themselves and their family. Our proposals in this series have focused on just that: making work pay.

When you focus poverty reduction plans on the people that can’t work, or you assume that people are trying not to work, you end up with goals that won’t address our underlying problems. When you focus on making work pay for the people that can and want to work, it’s easier to develop solutions for Oregon’s economy. This difference in focus between those that can work and those that can’t is the source for the differences in policy recommendations from our Better Oregon Plan and the Oregon Business Plan’s Path to Prosperity report. Another difference is the scope of policy recommendations: the Oregon Business Plan focuses on interventions for individuals and pilot programs, our approach attempts population level solutions under the assumption that we need to find policies that will help every Oregonian. While programs for individuals can provide a boost to some people living in poverty, they won’t change the underlying conditions that are keeping Oregon families struggling.

In today’s post, we discuss the differences between population level and pilot project approaches, and why large-scale population level change is the most efficient and effective way to improve Oregon’s economy and help working people.

Many people are still living in poverty even though they work hard

Path to Prosperity highlights two groups of people who use safety net programs: “adults who can’t work, as well as the elderly and those with severe physical and mental disabilities”; and “larger populations who may be capable of work in the short run but cannot find it.” (p. 13) The sad truth is that there is a third group of families in poverty – hundreds of thousands of adults in Oregon who are working but still need public assistance. In fact, among the 494,707 Oregon adults receiving food assistance benefits in January 2014, about 195,000 (39%) worked the previous year, with many working multiple jobs. However, those workers averaged only 910 hours of work at $12.36/hour, not nearly enough to support a family. (Oregon Health Authority/Department of Human Services, 2014 High Poverty Hotspots Report and supplemental data)

The real challenge is that people are working full time or more than full time, but they are not earning enough to make ends meet. The companies that pay these low wages should be more responsible for the community burden they create – but they’re not. Right now, not only are these hard working Oregonians underpaid, our Oregon taxes must subsidize these low wage workers while major out-of-state companies profit. For instance, Wal-Mart reported $16 billion in profits last year, while receiving an estimated $6.2 billion in taxpayer subsidies for their low wage employees. Nationally, public assistance to fast food workers costs $7 billion a year. This is a vicious cycle. When low-wage workers must turn to the community to help, that creates a burden on social services. With great need and limited resources, important programs are starved. That hurts the entire community because with fewer state resources for core state services, class sizes get bigger, tuition skyrockets, families lose health care, and much more.

The best way to end the cycle is to make sure working Oregonians are paid enough to support their families. When budgets are tight and families have trouble meeting basic costs for food, clothes and housing, there’s little left to spend on anything else. When working families earn more, they spend more in their communities, putting more people to work and strengthening the economy. Recently, Standard and Poor’s reported that income inequality related to stagnant wages is limiting economic growth.

Identifying and fixing underlying causes of poverty in Oregon will have a greater long-term impact than targeting intensive aid efforts at Oregon’s poorest families. A population level approach is in contrast to the individualized approaches discussed by Path to Prosperity and others which focus on the differences between individual people living in poverty.. Their analysis is based on the notion that “Reducing poverty starts by untangling the different groups of people in poverty and addressing the needs of each.”(p.3) Unfortunately, the one by one approach just can’t help enough people to make a difference for all of Oregon’s economy.

Though poverty affects communities differently, the root causes of poverty are consistent across the state.

• U.S. based companies have moved millions of middle-wage American jobs to foreign countries where labor is cheaper and regulations to protect worker safety and the environment are not as strong. Between 1999 and 2009, U.S.-based multinational companies cut their U.S. labor force by 2.9 million people while creating 2.4 million jobs in other countries.

• While millions of good jobs were outsourced, many of the new jobs created since the recession hit pay only low wages or are part-time only. Most Oregonians have seen their wages decline over time; between 2002 and 2013 real wages decreased for over half of Oregon’s workers. In addition, since the recession hit in 2008 a greater share of workers have been unable to find full-time work. About one quarter of the part-time workers in Oregon were part-time for economic reasons, meaning the workers wanted to work more hours, but they were not made available by their employer. 

• Disinvestments in education mean too many Oregon students are not being adequately prepared to succeed once they leave school. Education funding in Oregon has not kept up with population growth, and recession-related budget cuts hit schools the hardest. Between the 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years, Oregon public schools lost nearly 5,300 full time equivalent (FTE) positions. The biggest cuts were in the classroom: 3,386 FTE teachers and 1,176 FTE instructional assistants, (equivalent to 1 in 9 of those jobs lost).  Oregon is now 49th among the states in student:teacher ratio, which translates to larger class sizes where students don’t learn as well. Oregon also has short school years—between grades 1 and 12 Oregon students receive a full year less instruction than the national average. This puts graduates of Oregon schools at a big disadvantage. While most higher-paying jobs require advanced education, fewer than half of Oregon high school graduates in 2010 went directly to college (compared to the U.S. average of 62.5%).

• Investing in education and putting people back to work costs money. Oregon has not had sufficient resources to make these investments because big corporations are not paying their fair share. This tax avoidance is self-defeating, as investments in education, infrastructure and public services are good for business. Oregon is in last place among the states for business taxes, and would need to raise billions of dollars more each year just to get up to the national average.

Calculations based on Occupational Employment Survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

While the complex challenges of poverty certainly require a multi-faceted approach, population-level interventions are almost always more successful than those that target intensive efforts at high-risk groups. Pilot projects can show small short-term results, but they are often difficult to implement and expensive to maintain. While targeted resource-intensive programs can help some people for a short period of time, scaling up those efforts statewide is costly and unlikely to achieve desired statewide results.

For an example of a resource intensive targeted approach, consider one of the policy options proposed by the Oregon Business Plan: offering financial incentives for schools that graduate a lot of students with technical certificates. Technical training programs are expensive, so incentives would have to be large for schools to break even without diverting funds from other classrooms. Without additional funding few schools would stand to receive any of these incentives, which may end up going to schools that already have successful programs and not the schools in impoverished districts that need the help more. This proposal is not likely to change the number of students that have access to Career Technical Education.

In contrast to a program by program approach, acting on upstream factors has proven successful. For example, in public health over the 20th century, public health interventions have added 25 years to the life expectancy of people born in the United States. Efforts to reduce smoking are a good example. Smoking rates are much higher among people with lower incomes; in fact, higher smoking rates are one of the major drivers of lower life expectancies for low-income individuals. A health promotion strategy that addressed the cessation needs of each low-income smoker would be extremely expensive to implement statewide, and would not actually be the most effective strategy to achieve long-term change. One-on-one interventions cost a lot of money so we can’t afford to deliver many of them, and when the money runs out (which it always does) we won’t be any better off than before since other people will have started smoking in the meantime. Instead of focusing on an intervention for the few worst off, a population-level approach, such as raising tobacco taxes, achieves a greater impact on a larger number of people. Raising tax rates reliably lower consumption among all smokers, but has the biggest effect on low-income smokers. Higher tobacco taxes also discourage kids from starting to smoke, Furthermore, instead of costing money, this approach actually brings in more revenue, which can be used to fund additional programs or offset health care costs.

There are a number of policies that can reduce poverty at the population level that we’ve discussed before – a combination of these approaches can help all working families and will not take years to develop or rely on unstable pilot project funding to implement.

Raise the minimum wage. Minimum wage jobs aren’t just for teenagers—many working adults make the minimum wage or not much more. The erosion of wages in Oregon has hurt our economy and slowed the recovery from the recession. To improve Oregon’s economy for all we need to raise wages. Oregon should start by phasing in a significant minimum wage increase, to bring the minimum wage up to a living wage. As time goes on we should strive to create jobs and set standards that allow families to support themselves.

Invest in education. Oregon needs to make new investments in education and services to ensure the economy grows in the years ahead. A complete economic plan for Oregon needs to include support and resources for high quality childcare, pre-K, kindergarten through grade 12, community college and four-year colleges.

Fix crumbling infrastructure and restore public services. We all benefit from clean air, safe drinking water, goods roads, and bridges that aren’t in danger of collapse. Corporate executives cite strong transportation infrastructure as a key factor in decisions where to locate businesses. Cuts to state services and delayed maintenance of infrastructure threaten Oregon’s economic future. Besides putting people to work in jobs that can’t be outsourced, these investments will set the stage for a robust economy in the years ahead.

Hold corporations accountable when they take advantage of the safety net.  Profitable corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s maintain a part-time, low wage workforce, boosting corporate profits while paying workers so little they must rely on taxpayer-supported safety net programs to get by. We should make the largest employers profiting off low wages pay a fee to offset the costs of safety net services to make sure their employees can provide for their families.

18 Responses to “Who is Struggling in Oregon’s Economy, Why, and What We Can Do about It”

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The Rest of the Story of Oregon’s Economy

To inform an effective poverty reduction plan, we need to have a better understanding of the underlying causes that result in so many families struggling financially. It helps to put these in the context of general economic trends in Oregon and the United States.

Oregon’s economy is a story of opposites. Gross state product grew three times faster than the U.S. economy between 2001 and 2012, but unemployment rates exceed the national average. Though some metro areas are seeing promising growth in high wage jobs, most of the new jobs elsewhere in the state pay only low wages, or are part-time only. Corporate profits soar and the rich are getting richer, but most families saw their real incomes drop over the past decade. Over 1 million Oregonians received food stamps in 2013 and over half the students in Oregon public schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

How is it that the economy is growing but most Oregonians are getting poorer? The answer is that economic gains are going not to workers but to boost corporate profits, which go mostly to wealthy shareholders. Corporate profits are at record highs. The top 1%, who own more than half of all corporate stocks, reap the benefit. Corporate profits quickly recovered from the 2008 crash, but most of the good jobs that were lost have not returned. As a result, the recovery from the 2008 recession has been one of the most lopsided in American history. From 2009 to 2012,“top 1% incomes grew by 31.4% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.4%… Hence, the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery.” The top tenth of 1% of the U.S. wealth distribution (that’s 1 in 1,000) now hold over 20% of the nation’s wealth.

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In Oregon, total personal income for full-year tax filers increased by $6 billion between 2011 and 2012, but more than half of the increase ($3.4 billion, or 56%) was claimed by just the wealthiest 1%.  These dramatic gains in income came not from rising wages, but from capital gains and other unearned income. The top 1% claimed 73% of all capital gains in Oregon in 2012. Because federal taxes on capital gains are much lower than taxes on earned income, the wealthy pay much lower tax rates than the bottom 99%.

Skyrocketing corporate profits aren’t being shared with workers who generate them, as evidenced by relatively flat or falling wages. In fact, one of the main reasons for record-high profits is that workers are not getting their fair share. The less corporations pay their workers—the more they cut hours, salaries, and benefits—the more they deliver to their shareholders in the form of higher dividends and stock values. In Oregon the share of personal income from wages, salaries and benefits is shrinking, while corporate profits as a share of the gross state product are growing. While corporate profits are at record highs, employee compensation is at its lowest level in 65 years.

Other papers discussing Oregon’s economy — chiefly the Path to Prosperity report from the Oregon Business Plan—don’t tell this side of the story. Instead, they claim that over the past 25 years, “Economic gains have been largely limited to skilled workers.”(Page 1) The data does not show this to be true. While it is true that earnings of some professionals like doctors have increased over time, these are dwarfed by the gains going to the top 1%. Most skilled workers lost ground in the new economy, having to settle for lower wages and part-time jobs.

The Path to Prosperity report blames technology for the loss of jobs. “Technology and globalization continue to enforce a long-term trend: medium-wage jobs involving routing tasks, once plentiful in our state and nation, have declined in good times and bad over the past three decades.” (Page 2) Clearly, advancing technology has made some jobs unnecessary, that is not the main reason big corporations have slashed wages and benefits and outsourced so many American jobs overseas. The Wall Street Journal reported that between 1999 and 2009, U.S.-based multinational companies cut their U.S. labor force by 2.9 million people while creating 2.4 million jobs in other countries. Cutting labor costs was done to boost corporate profits. Meanwhile, the erosion of jobs, wages and benefits has left the U.S. economy in bad shape.

While the rich get richer, most Oregon families are struggling. Between 2002 and 2012, inflation-adjusted income fell for the bottom three quarters of Oregon’s income distribution. Even though many people are working, the erosion of wages and benefits is keeping people from getting ahead. The households receiving food assistance in January 2014 have seen their real incomes decline by an average 29% over the past five years, after adjusting for inflation. (Author’s analysis of data from 2014 High Poverty Hotspots Report)

So, what can be done? First and foremost, improving wages for Oregon workers must be a high priority. When workers earn more, they spend that money locally, growing the economy and creating jobs. Higher incomes also generate more tax revenue to fund education, infrastructure and essential public services, which also promote economic growth. In addition, raising wages means fewer working people will need assistance through safety net programs, saving taxpayer money and freeing up those resources for other needed investments.

We propose several policy options to raise wages in Oregon.

Raise the minimum wage. Minimum wage jobs aren’t just for teenagers—many working adults make the minimum wage or not much more. The erosion of wages in Oregon has hurt our economy and slowed the recovery from the recession. To improve Oregon’s economy for all we need to raise wages. Oregon should start by phasing in a significant minimum wage increase, to bring the minimum wage up to a living wage. As time goes on we should strive to create jobs and set standards that allow families to support themselves.

Hold corporations accountable when they take advantage of the safety net.  Profitable corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s maintain a part-time, low wage workforce, boosting corporate profits while paying workers so little they must rely on taxpayer-supported safety net programs to get by. We should make the largest employers profiting off low wages pay a fee to offset the costs of safety net services to make sure their employees can provide for their families.

• Provide paid sick leave. Getting sick shouldn’t mean losing your job. Nationwide 39% of private-sector workers and 80% of low-income workers have no paid sick days from their job. Only 31% of Oregon employers offer paid sick leave to full-time, non-management employees. Allowing people to earn sick time while working will benefit many workers and their families, strengthen Oregon’s economy, and keep everyone healthier.

• Preserve workers’ rights. When workers can organize and advocate for themselves, they earn better wages and improve working conditions. Wealthy CEOs and big corporations are trying to erode workers’ rights in order to boost profits that are already at record levels. Rejecting efforts to eliminate workers’ rights are crucial.

 

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A Better Oregon

Each day this week, we’re releasing a chapter from a paper Our Oregon’s Dr. Daniel Morris wrote called “A Better Oregon” – it’s an analysis of Oregon’s economy, it’s a road map to policy solutions that could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians and it’s an alternative vision to the policies we need to improve our economic health. We hope it serves as a voice in the conversation about which steps we take to improve the state we love. Today’s first section is an introduction to the report.

A Better Oregon

Introduction

Oregon’s economy is a story of opposites. Gross state product has grown three times faster than the U.S. economy, but most families have seen their real income drop over the past decade. Unemployment and underemployment rates remain high, and Oregon’s recovery from the 2008 recession has been slow. Though some metro areas are seeing promising growth in high wage jobs, most of the new jobs elsewhere in the state pay only low wages, or are part-time only. Corporate profits soar and the rich are getting richer, but over 1 million Oregonians received food stamp in 2013.

Oregon’s economy isn’t working for most Oregonians, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Oregon could improve our economy and help working families at the same time if voters and state leaders take action. Identifying what is needed is not rocket science, and in the next year we could implement a number of proposals to improve the well being of hundreds of thousands. Here at Our Oregon, we’ve been collecting the myriad ideas that could fix Oregon’s economy – but we’re just one of many groups working to outline well-researched solutions to our unique state challenges. Over the next couple of weeks, we plan to share some of our best ideas, why they work for the economy and why they’re better than some of the other proposals floating in the public sphere. Our proposals aim to make population level change – lasting change for every Oregonian – which is no easy task. But we’re confident that if Oregon were to lead the country on this work, we could also lead the country in having the robust, middle class economy that so many deserve. Our list is not an exhaustive list of what will work – but it’s a start. Here are just some of the proposals that could make a difference: 

Raise the minimum wage. Minimum wage jobs aren’t just for teenagers—many working adults make the minimum wage or not much more. The erosion of wages in Oregon has hurt our economy and slowed the recovery from the recession. To improve Oregon’s economy for all we need to raise wages. Oregon should start by phasing in a significant minimum wage increase, to bring the minimum wage up to a living wage. As time goes on we should strive to create jobs and set standards that allow families to support themselves.

Paid sick leave. Getting sick shouldn’t mean losing your job. Nationwide 39% of private-sector workers and 80% of low-income workers have no paid sick days from their job. Only 31% of Oregon employers offer paid sick leave to full-time, non-management employees. Allowing people to earn sick time while working will benefit many workers and their families, strengthen Oregon’s economy, and keep everyone healthier.

Fair pay. In every state, women average lower wages than men. Not only is this unfair, but it creates additional hardships for single parents, most of whom are women. Wage theft—when employers illegally withhold pay or benefits from workers—is another pervasive problem. We should aggressively fight wage discrimination, ensure people are fairly compensated for their work, and bar retaliation against workers who want their fair pay.

• Retirement security. When people can look forward to a secure retirement, they know they will be able to continue to contribute to the economy and not be a financial burden to their family or taxpayers. Unfortunately, many people have little in retirement savings and are facing a bleak future. Helping people build retirement savings helps us all.

• Preserve workers’ rights. When workers can organize and advocate for themselves, they earn better wages and improve working conditions. Wealthy CEOs and big corporations are trying to erode workers’ rights in order to boost profits that are already at record levels. We need to preserve and expand the rights of workers in today’s economy.

• Childcare should not be an obstacle to work. Oregon has the least affordable childcare in the country, which puts a huge burden on working parents. Difficulty securing affordable childcare keeps many from working. Expanding Employment Related Day Care and tax credits for childcare for working families will allow more people to go to work.

• Improve the safety net.  The transition off public assistance can be abrupt—a small gain in wages can mean losing hundreds of dollars a month in food and childcare support. Families can also lose support before they have been able to build up a cushion to buffer against the next setback, putting them at high risk of needing the safety net again. According to a survey done by the Federal Reserve, only 48% of Americans could completely cover a hypothetical $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money. Extending benefits to smooth the transition off public assistance makes sense.

• Hold corporations accountable when they take advantage of the safety net.  Profitable corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s maintain a part-time, low wage workforce, boosting corporate profits while paying workers so little they must rely on taxpayer-supported safety net programs to get by. We should make the largest employers profiting off low wages pay a fee to offset the costs of safety net services to make sure their employees can provide for their families.

• Fix crumbling infrastructure and restore public services. We all benefit from clean air, safe drinking water, goods roads, and bridges that aren’t in danger of collapse. Corporate executives cite strong transportation infrastructure as a key factor in decisions where to locate businesses. Cuts to state services and delayed maintenance of infrastructure threaten Oregon’s economic future. Besides putting people to work in jobs that can’t be outsourced, these investments will set the stage for a robust economy in the years ahead.

• “Ban the box”. Thousands of Oregonians with criminal histories face job and housing discrimination, making it harder for them to succeed in their communities. Application form questions about prior arrests or convictions make it easy to dismiss people without consideration, even when they are ready and able to be a productive member of the community. People of color are especially affected due to discriminatory arrest and prosecution practices. Banning questions on prior arrests or convictions on application forms will give more Oregonians a fair chance.

Improving the economic conditions for all Oregonians is step one. In addition, Oregon needs to make new investments in education and services to ensure the economy grows in the years ahead. A complete economic plan for Oregon needs to include support and resources for high quality childcare, pre-K, kindergarten through grade 12, community college and four-year colleges. Some topline needs to make Oregon’s education stronger:

• Expand Early Education. Aside from starting kids on a good path, early learning programs like Head Start free up parents to participate in the labor force. Currently not all eligible families are able to participate in Head Start, due to lack of funding. Making available universal pre-K services to all 35,000 3 and 4 year olds living in poverty would be a wise investment in Oregon’s future.

• Invest in K-12 education. Hire back the thousands of laid-of teachers Oregon has lost in the last decade, reduce class sizes, and extend the school year to at least the minimum 180 days required by most states. When we provide more education, our kids will do better.

• Restore career and technical education programs. These programs provide a path to good jobs for many students who otherwise would not succeed in school. Hundreds of Career and Technical Education programs have been cut around the state and should be restored.

• Restore funding to community colleges. Community colleges provide valuable opportunities for Oregonians to develop career skills and prepare for higher education. Investing more in community colleges will allow more communities to develop training programs to meet current business staffing needs.

• Make higher education affordable. Tuition at state universities has been rising much faster than inflation, as the state disinvested in higher education. Higher tuitions mean more students graduate with burdensome debt, or worse, end up with debt but no diploma. Instead of more loans, we should invest in more student aid and reduced tuitions. This will benefit Oregon families and allow more graduates to build their savings and spend more to grow the economy.

We welcome the opportunity to have a conversation about the policies and investments that will best improve Oregon’s economy for all Oregonians. Other groups have also proposed ideas for reducing poverty and improving Oregon’s economy. Some of our analysis includes some critiques of other proposals. Some ideas are good and just need funding. Others are misguided and should be avoided. Our posts here are designed to use research and facts to help inform the full conversation.

One key report we analyze is the The Path to Prosperity from the Oregon Business Plan. In their own words, “The Oregon Business Plan is an effort led by Oregon’s business community to create 25,000 new jobs in Oregon each year, raise Oregon’s per capita income above the national average, and reduce poverty below 10% by 2020.  The Plan is a collaborative effort among business leaders and associations, public sector partners, and nonprofit and community organizations.” We share these goals, and agree that some of their proposals are worth pursuing. However, we believe the facts show some of the policies proposed by the Oregon Business Plan will not help us reach these shared goals.

In many cases, the devil is in the details. We want to see more jobs, but good jobs, not just more low wage, part-time work. We want to see personal income increase, but not if the per capita average only goes up because gains to millionaires outweigh the losses of working people. We want to see fewer Oregonians living in poverty, but we want to get there by improving the economy for everyone in the state, not just by nudging people above an arbitrary line.

Who we help and how we get there matters. We hope our conversation about Oregon’s economy adds to the discussion policy makers need to find the right path to help the most people. Here’s a brief outline of our series of posts:

The true story about Oregon’s economy. Our middle class is shrinking and more people than ever before work for low wages that force families to turn to state assistance to make ends meet. Some groups, like the Oregon Business Plan, blame technology for Oregon’s shrinking middle class. While it is true that advancing technology has made some jobs unnecessary, that is only one piece of the story. The more important reason families are struggling in this economy is that big corporations have slashed wages and benefits and outsourced so many American jobs overseas. Cutting labor costs was done to boost corporate profits, and those profits have gone mostly to the Top 1%. This is the story of our “economic recovery.” While the erosion of jobs, wages and benefits has left the U.S. economy in bad shape, the wealth of the top 1% continues to grow and grow. In our next post we tell another side of the story about Oregon’s economy and the challenges we face.

Long lasting change. Post number two dives deeper into the Path to Prosperity report and tackles some of their assumptions that call their conclusions into question. Specifically we focus on the large population of families who are struggling to make ends meet, and what exactly will help bring that large community true population-level change. We propose policies that tackle the root causes of poverty in Oregon and discuss why that’s a wiser approach than pilot projects and small interventions for individuals.

An economy that works for all Oregonians. In our third post, we discuss in depth one pillar of our plan for a stronger Oregon economy – game-changing investments in education. In this post, we challenge the idea that poverty reduction and education improvements have to be done on a small scale. This is the position taken by the Oregon Business Plan, because they omit Oregon’s options for raising revenues to fund real change efforts. Oregon has the country’s lowest business taxes, with many profitable out-of-state corporations paying only a pittance for the privilege of doing business in the state. If those big corporations paid their fair share Oregon could afford to invest in the education, infrastructure and public services that help grow the economy and provide all with a better quality of life.

The path forward. In our final post, we discuss how to raise funds fairly to fund true poverty reduction while protecting Oregon businesses.

9 Responses to “A Better Oregon”

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