This brief is the second in a series examining timely topics that are relevant to Black families and children in the United States. It sheds light on the role of federal policies in creating, maintaining, and addressing inequities brought about by structural racism, with a specific focus on access to early care and education for Black families. The first brief provides a brief summary of recent data and historical context on family structure, employment and income, and geography for Black people with young children in the United States. The third brief uses national, state, and local data to examine housing access and other available supports for Black families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we wrote in the first brief of this series, Black Americans’ social standing in the United States has been shaped by a long history of racism in laws, policies, and practices that has built racist institutions and created and exacerbated inequality. This inequality is built into the infrastructure of our country and has formed the foundation for structural racism—a system that privileges White people and results in intentional disadvantage for Black Americans. These inequalities negatively impact the lives of Black people in a number of ways, including where they live; the education they receive; their employment and economic opportunities, access to child care, mental and physical health outcomes, and political standing and power; and the way they are treated in our systems of law and justice. Virtually every facet of the lives of Black people in the United States—both adults and children—is shaped by race. America’s racist laws and policies have long impacted Black Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status or social standing.
This second issue brief sets a vision for how the federal government can pursue policy strategies that support access to early care and education for Black families by drawing on historical, contextual, and demographic data related to Black family structure, employment and income, and geography. First, we discuss the current and historical role of federal policy in the lives of Black Americans. Next, we review the importance of early care and education (ECE), as well as the barriers that Black families face to accessing these important services. We describe two federal programs—Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund—which have the potential to facilitate greater access to ECE for Black children. Finally, we present recommendations for developing policies and infrastructure to support and protect Black families from the harmful effects of structural racism, while promoting the country’s economic recovery from COVID-19.
Due to the pervasive nature of structural racism in the United States, no Black person in America (regardless of their country of origin or ancestry) is immune from the effects of racism. However, the historical context of an individual’s country of origin or identification may vary; this, in turn, has the potential to differentially impact the experiences of Black people in the United States.
When referencing Black people throughout this issue brief series, we are referring to individuals who may identify as African American—those who were primarily born in America and are descended from enslaved Africans who survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade—as well as the smaller populations of people living in America who may identify as Black African or Afro-Caribbean.
Black also includes individuals who reported being Black alone or in combination with one or more races or ethnicities in their responses to the U.S. Census—for instance, an individual who identifies as Black only, as well as someone who identifies as Black and White combined or Afro-Latino.
For centuries, structural racism in U.S. policies and practices—including in education, family support, employment, and housing-related policies—has negatively affected the social and fiscal stability of Black Americans. The troubling consequences of these racist policies are many, including the isolation of Black children from educational opportunities. For instance, in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate Black and White schools did not violate the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, upholding a longstanding tradition of isolating Black children in segregated educational settings. In 1954, however, the Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools via the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Despite this ruling occurring more than 60 years ago, U.S. public schools are still overwhelmingly segregated along racial lines and remain very much unequal.
A key aspect of these legal filings is that segregation itself is inherently unequal. In practice, racial segregation in the absence of racist and discriminatory policies and practices should not result in disadvantage. For example, all-Black economically mixed and prosperous communities were founded after the abolition of slavery in the United States. From 1865 to 1920, Black Americans founded more than 50 Black townships in Oklahoma. One of those townships, the Greenwood district, had grocery stores, a hospital, entertainment (restaurants, pool halls, movie theaters, and nightclubs), hotels, luxury stores, hair salons and barbershops, a post office, transportation services, a school system, medical and legal services, and a library. Greenwood became known as Black Wall Street—the epicenter of business and culture for Black Americans.
This type of advancement for Black people angered a significant percentage of White Americans, many of whom were interested in maintaining the status quo by availing themselves of Black labor, keeping Black people tethered to segregated and inferior facilities and conditions, and maintaining their positions of superiority and power. This backlash led to the development of policies, laws, and de facto discrimination—enacted via grandfather clauses, literacy tests for voting, and systems like Black Codes (1865-1866), Pig Laws (1876-1888), and Jim Crow (1881-1970s)—as well as violence and outright terrorism, in an effort to block the progress of Black Americans and cement White advantage. An examination of voting rates over time illustrates the effectiveness of these strategies. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), when Black Codes were repealed, over 90 percent of Black men in the South were registered to vote[i] (a critical activity for setting policy and ensuring equality in facilities and treatment), compared to only 3 percent in 1940 during the era of Jim Crow.
The vestiges of these discriminatory laws and practices persist. When examining the roots of the child care system, the focus of this issue brief, we find that enslaved Black women were forced to engage in domestic work, including caring for White children, with no pay. Once slavery was abolished, domestic and child care work were often the only employment opportunities available to Black women., Cultural biases, stemming from slavery and rooted in racism and sexism, resulted in the cultural and financial devaluation of domestic and child care work in general, particularly for Black women. Moreover, federal policies like the 1938 Fair Labor Standard Act also systematized and institutionalized racism by guaranteeing minimum wages and standard hours for American workers but excluding domestics.
A current examination of the pay rates of ECE professionals (who are predominantly female) reveals concerning racial disparities that are another legacy of racist and institutionalized policies. Black ECE professionals earn an average of $0.78 less per hour than their White peers. In addition, the percentage of Black ECE professionals who live below the poverty line is 23 percent, compared to 15 percent for White ECE professionals.
Even federal policies and programs designed to help small businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unequal access for child care providers and Black Americans. For instance, a study from the Bipartisan Policy Center on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)[ii] found that child care providers received only 5 percent of the over $520 billion in funding allocated to small businesses. In addition, a review of technical assistance supports provided to home-based child care providers found that the application process for the PPP disadvantaged home-based child care businesses operated by women of color, including those owned by Black women. The primary reason was that these businesses lacked a preexisting business relationship with banks. In fact, a survey conducted by the National Association of Family Child Care found that 18 percent of home-based providers who did not receive a PPP loan indicated that banks would not work with them, while another 12 percent responded that their lack of a business checking account had resulted in their denial. In short, PPP funding has not successfully met the needs of child care businesses owned by women of color.
As these examples illustrate, federal policies are ever-changing and can serve as a powerful mechanism for hindering or advancing the lives of Americans. Even federal policies that are well-intended, like the PPP, may still be out of reach to Black people due to local-level systemic barriers, like access to banking. While contemporary policies may not appear to be as explicitly racist as in the past, the results—and in some cases the intentions—of certain current federal policies remain the same—an undermining of the stability, prosperity, and economic gains of Black people., , 
Children’s development occurs rapidly in the early years of life and is facilitated in large part through characteristics of their environment, including the care they receive in and outside of their homes. Participation in high-quality early care and education has been linked to positive school outcomes, economic stability, higher earnings, better physical and mental health, and increased social opportunities for children. However, a sizeable number of children from low-income families—especially Black children—do not have access to high-quality early care and education, despite evidence showing they would benefit the most.
The advantages of access to high-quality early care and education extend beyond children, and positively impact families, communities, and the entire country. For instance, access to ECE programs can support parents’ participation in employment, training, and educational activities, thus increasing their earning potential. Moreover, research shows that ECE programs have benefitted society in the form of reduced educational expenditures. For example, for every $1 care spent on ECE programs, societal savings have been estimated at $8.60 over a child’s lifetime, a result of savings related to factors like reductions in grade repetition and less spending on crime and anti-poverty programs. In addition, a groundbreaking study of achievement gaps and their impact on the U.S. economy found that, over time, gaps in educational achievement (which start in children’s early years) result in the “equivalent of a permanent national recession” on the U.S. economy. While the study’s researchers “bundled” Black and Hispanic student achievement because of the similarity in standardized test scores for both groups, the findings are clear: investments in education have the potential to bolster the educational and social prospects of Black children, resulting in positive advantages for children, families, and the country.
Given these benefits, the federal government should play a key role in developing policies and making investments that address racial disparities and increase access to ECE programming for Black families.
As outlined above, research consistently shows the benefits of high-quality early care and education for Black children, particularly for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Unfortunately, multiple barriers limit Black families’ access to early care and education. In this section, we examine select factors (e.g., family structure, income, income and employment, and geography) and the ways in which they may hinder access to ECE opportunities for Black families. We also provide examples of two federal programs with the potential to facilitate increased access: Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund. While beyond the scope of this brief, we also recognize that—in addition to family structure, income, and employment—the type and quality of ECE programs available to families might also impact access.
The impact of family structure, income, and employment on access to early care and education
Young Black children primarily reside in households with married or unmarried partnered parents, with the next-largest share living in single-parent households. In addition, extended family members play important roles in supporting many of these households.,  While it should come as no surprise that Black families headed by single parents have lower incomes and experience more economic hardship than coupled families, Black children living in either married or unmarried partnered families also experience high rates of economic disadvantage. Across these family types, workforce participation is prevalent, but parents still lack resources that enable easy and affordable access to ECE programs.
The lack of resources among many Black families, including lower incomes, can be attributed to several factors. For instance, despite high levels of participation in the labor market, Black families earn 40 percent less, on average, than White families. Black women are more likely than White women to be household breadwinners, irrespective of marital status, and are more often single heads of households. Black men and women have less access to job opportunities and experience more challenges to becoming employed than White men and women, and are more likely to have low incomes than their White or Asian/Pacific Islander counterparts. They also systematically have poorer job benefits (e.g., health insurance or retirement plans), greater job instability, and higher rates of unemployment.
The lower earnings and employment-related challenges among Black people are a direct result of racist policies and practices that have an even greater impact on Black women. The end result is that access to early care and education—especially center-based child care—is unaffordable[iii] for many Black families, especially those with low incomes. This lack of access is further constrained by geography because Black people are less likely than other races to have child care centers in their neighborhoods.
In short, many Black families with children could benefit from increased access to child care, a resource that can support children’s positive development and facilitate greater participation of parents in the labor market. Without adequate policy, programming, or financial supports, Black parents may be forced to leave the workforce to care for their children. Employment departures related to a lack of child care are a burden borne most often by women; the COVID-19 pandemic has not been an exception. In December 2020, women accounted for 86.3 percent of all jobs lost—many as a result of being forced to leave work because of school and child care closures, an issue particularly acute for Black women. This could have especially devastating financial consequences for Black families, in which women are more likely to be the primary breadwinners or be a single head of the household. In addition, Black families are less likely to have the savings or wealth necessary to sustain a household during a long term separation from employment.
Federal programs can support Black families’ access to early care and education
While states and local jurisdictions play an important role in supporting access to early care and education (i.e., universal pre-K often happens at the state or school district level), we focus this brief on federal programs—specifically those implemented by the offices of Head Start and Child Care. The reason for this approach is three-fold:
While many implementation decisions for early care and education happen at the state level, many of the resources that states access, along with the policies that guide their work, come from the federal government. For example, states receive funding in the form of federal grants to support the provision of ECE programming. The federal government sets broad policies and establishes common objectives for the funding, but states or other local grantees have some discretion in how the funds are distributed and used. As such, the federal government has the unique opportunity to set policy and oversee state practices and policies in ways that can support equitable access to early care and education for Black families.
At the federal level, access to early care and education is supported by the offices of Head Start and Child Care. Together, these offices prioritize serving young children from low-income families and run the two largest federally funded programs: Head Start/Early Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund. Given pervasive racial disparities in labor force participation, income, and wealth—in some instances a result of geographic location—Black families are a population of focus for the programs administered by the offices of Head Start and Child Care. The following sections describe these two federal programs, how they began, their attention to race and equity, and who they currently serve.
Overview of Head Start
The Office of Head Start serves young children, toddlers, and infants from low-income families through Head Start and Early Head Start programs delivered by 1,700 public and private nonprofit and for-profit agencies (referred to as grantees) across the country. The federal government allocates funds for Head Start each year and the Department of Health and Human Services determines the amount allocated to each state, territory, or tribal government, based on the number of current and anticipated grantees. Grantees receive funds directly to administer Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Individual grantees have the discretion to design services that meet the needs of their local community but must also adhere to national performance standards.
Racial equity and Head Start
Head Start was established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” It was created partly in response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which sought, among many other goals, to establish economic equality for Black people in the United States. At the time, Southern states in particular were openly hostile toward equitably investing in Black communities, and Head Start’s federal-to-local funding structure was designed to circumvent these regional differences by ensuring that at least some resources were allocated to serving Black families, even if they did not come directly from states. This funding structure has also allowed local Head Start grantees to tailor programming to meet the needs of their communities, via an array of comprehensive services such as linkages to educational or employment services for parents and developmental screenings for young children.
Children served by Head Start
In 2019, Head Start and Early Head Start programs provided services to over 1 million children and pregnant women nationwide, but the programs have never had enough available slots to serve every child who meets their eligibility criteria.[iv] In 2016, Head Start programs served 43 percent of all eligible preschoolers, and Early Head Start served just 5 percent of eligible infants and toddlers. In line with its initial goal of supporting Black families, the proportion of Black children served by Head Start is higher than any other racial or ethnic group, 54 percent, compared to 38 percent of Hispanic children and 36 percent of Asian children. There is significant geographic variation, however, across states. For example, Head Start programs in Mississippi, the District of Columbia, and Kansas serve more than two thirds of eligible Black preschoolers, while programs in Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado serve one third or less.
Given pervasive patterns of residential segregation in the United States, it is useful to understand Head Start availability and eligibility at the neighborhood level. Nationally, about 28 percent of eligible Black children have a Head Start program in their neighborhood, which is slightly higher than the average for eligible White children (25%). However, eligible Black children live in neighborhoods with greater potential demand for slots in those Head Start programs. On average, Black children live in neighborhoods with 88 eligible children per program, compared to 59 eligible children per program for White children.
Overview of CCDF
The Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) program, overseen by the Office of Child Care, provides financial assistance, or subsidies, for low-income working families to access high-quality child care. CCDF was first authorized in 1990 and is distributed to states as a block grant. CCDF funds are primarily used to cover the cost of child care, with the remaining funding designated to strengthen the quality of child care programs. While states, territories, and tribal governments must meet certain federal standards to receive CCDF funds, individual jurisdictions have some flexibility in how they design their subsidy programs to best meet the needs of families and child care providers.
States also have discretion in how they allocate funds to support quality improvement, as well as how they set reimbursement rates for providers who participate. In many states, CCDF reimbursement rates are below the market rate for child care, making it hard for ECE providers to afford quality improvements. An analysis by the Office of Inspector General found that only seven states set their CCDF payment rates at the level recommended by the Administration for Children and Families to ensure equal access. For this reason, many of the highest-quality ECE providers choose not to accept subsidies, making high-quality care even less accessible to working families with low incomes who rely on CCDF funds.
Racial equity and CCDF
The Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, the law that authorizes the CCDF, does not include specific language related to supporting racial equity. It does, however, focus on ensuring that children from low-income families have the same level of access to high-quality early care and education as families with more resources. Because of the disproportionate number of Black people who have low incomes, Black families and children have the potential to benefit in large numbers from CCDF policy, if granted access to subsidies.
Children served by CCDF
Eligibility for CCDF varies by state but is generally based on income (as a percentage of the state’s median income) and work or education requirements for parents. Nationally, only a small percentage of potentially eligible children receive CCDF-funded child care. Estimates range from 8 to 15 percent, depending on the methodology used. In fiscal year 2018, approximately 1.3 million children received CCDF-funded child care. Because states have discretion in how they set eligibility requirements, accessibility differs significantly by geographic location, ranging from 5 percent of eligible Black children in South Carolina to 33 percent in Pennsylvania. Of the children who receive CCDF-funded child care, approximately 40 percent were Black, ranging from 1 percent in Hawaii to 86 percent in the District of Columbia; 26 percent of eligible children were White, 23 percent were Hispanic, and 1 percent were Asian. While Black children have the highest rates of access to CCDF-funded child care, overall numbers are still very low: An estimated 79 percent of potentially eligible Black children do not receive subsidies.
Ultimately, variations in CCDF state-level policies—especially around work requirements, reimbursement rates, geography, and quality improvement—have disproportionately affected Black families’ ability to access subsidies and, in turn, to access high-quality child care.
Early care and education is an integral part of the U.S. economy. It provides support to families and can foster the positive and healthy development of children. The ECE system, however, is not equitable for Black workers or the families who need and use it. This brief highlights compensation disparities among the largely female ECE workforce, noting that deficiencies are worse for Black women. It also shows that Black families’ eligibility and need for affordable ECE programming outpaces its availability. These systemic gender and racial inequities have been exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within this context, federal programs can play an important role in supporting the stability and well-being of the Black ECE providers and families by developing, strengthening, and implementing policies that directly address structural racism.
Fortunately, the timing is right for the offices of Head Start and Child Care to position themselves at the forefront of efforts to address disparities in the ECE sector. Not only does the COVID-19 pandemic offer a window of opportunity to reimagine policy, the new administration is poised to support work focused on equity. President Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government asks federal departments and agencies to conduct “equity assessments” to understand whether their policies further systemic racism. As a start, we suggest that those tasked with conducting equity assessments leverage, reference, and build on the extensive and compelling research and syntheses that have already documented existing inequalities in the U.S. early care and education system, including departmental and agency policies. The recommendations below are provided in the spirit of advancing the design of a system that facilitates equitable ECE access for Black families.
Professional development that focuses on understanding the origins of systemic inequities and their impact on the country—and Black families specifically—is critical for those who enact, oversee, implement, or evaluate policies related to equity. Like the rest of society, policymakers have a range of biases and can act in intentionally or unintentionally racist ways. While we recognize that training to identify biases and discriminatory ideologies is not a failsafe strategy, we also posit that training coupled with clear expectations from federal leadership regarding outcomes and accountability standards—along with a robust system of checks and balances—is a solid first step toward dismantling and safeguarding against the development of policies that may negatively impact Black ECE professionals and Black families that use ECE services.
Collecting and disaggregating data are important activities for revealing patterns that can be concealed within aggregate data and can facilitate a greater understanding of how specific groups within the ECE workforce, or specific types of families with young children, are faring in the ECE system. For example, when asked about their future priorities for the allocation of CCDF funding to meet policy mandates, many states reported wanting to increase pay rates for providers and reduce co-payments for parents. Disaggregating data to understand whether particular subgroups of Black ECE professionals (like home-based child care providers) are receiving subsidies that might increase their pay rates and put them on equal footing with their White or center-based peers could be a first step toward ensuring equitable distribution of fiscal resources for the ECE workforce. While states would likely be responsible for implementing the data collection strategy—including ensuring that the appropriate type of data are collected—policymakers in the federal Office of Child Care could analyze and use these data to identify the impact of shifts across states.
Disaggregating data is also important for ensuring equitable access to early care and education across different types of Black families in need of child care. For example, intra-racial differences exist in the Black population in the United States. In Washington, DC, for example, 15 percent of Black residents are foreign-born, and the Twin Cities in Minnesota have one of the largest populations of Somali Americans in the country. Research by Logan and Deane finds distinct differences between Black people in the United States who have roots in slavery and the expanding pool of Black residents in the United States who are from the Caribbean and Africa—with the latter having certain advantages over the former. Head Start and Early Head Start programs—which, in addition to child care, provide other supports to families, such as employment support and mental health services—could use disaggregated data to examine how racial differences may affect the services that families need, want, and access. Disaggregated data can also help ensure that subgroups of Black families and children who are eligible for ECE programs like Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care subsidies are intentionally recruited into programs and not overlooked.
Strengthening data analysis processes via disaggregation provides an opportunity to better address race-related disparities across program types. For example, Head Start and the Office of Child Care could use disaggregated data to develop specific goals and benchmarks for issues like ensuring equality in workforce compensation. This challenge cuts across both agencies and has been identified as an issue that impacts child care workers’ well-being and commitment to staying in the field. History has shown that waiting for equal compensation and opportunity to occur without intentional and deliberate intervention has resulted in pervasive wage differentials for Black and female ECE workers. Developing a coordinated and unified federal compensation strategy that is tied to benchmarks and goals in compensation, workforce diversity, and roles could lay the groundwork to ensure that Black and female ECE professionals receive the same pay and professional opportunities as their non-Black peers.
While federal monies are transferred to states to support various aspects of state ECE systems, states independently determine how those funds will be divided and used. By increasing or providing bonus payments for states that meet accountability standards, federal offices can signal that they are prioritizing efforts that attend to issues related to inequities in resource allocation and access. Efforts like this should start with an in-depth assessment of how state systems currently operate programs, provide services, and allocate resources.
As this issue brief (and other research) reveals, geography can play an important role in families’ access to ECE programs. Unfortunately, Head Start currently has no flexibility to allow for state or regional variations in costs of living. Families with limited means who could benefit from the program but who live in high-cost areas may not be able to access Head Start and Early Head Start’s services because they are not considered impoverished based on federal guidelines. Moreover, programs themselves may need resources to operate in areas where rents are prohibitively expensive. For example, a recent needs assessment of Head Start and Early Head Start in Washington, DC indicated that changes caused by gentrification are making it difficult for programs to remain in certain areas of the District because building rents are too high. In addition, high rent costs make it tough for those with modest incomes to remain in the city, challenging programs’ ability to find and hire workers and maintain enrollment of families eligible for and in need of Head Start services. Head Start’s valuing of discretion and local context should be extended to address other issues that may impact Black families and children, such as living in high-cost areas. During the grant making process, Head Start could not only require grantees to examine and document shifts in state and local demographics to identify trends related to the number of Black families with young children; they could also require programs to create policies that allow for discretion in service provision (e.g., acceptance waivers for families in areas with high cost of living).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that states set CCDF payment rates at levels that cover “at least 75 percent of child care prices,” but they do not measure whether states ensure equal access to ECE subsidies. ACF could financially incentivize states with high numbers of Black families with young children to regularly update their market rate surveys and ensure that subsidy reimbursement rates accurately reflect current child care prices. This practice might encourage more ECE providers—particularly home-based providers, who are more likely than centers to provide care during nonstandard work hours—to engage with the subsidy system. This type of strategy could be particularly beneficial to Black families whose variations in employment patterns (e.g., irregular work schedules, fluctuating pay) may make engaging with center-based child care more challenging. Assuming rate changes result in livable wages for providers, this approach might also attract more Black providers to the ECE system, especially since families tend to use providers who are in geographic proximity and from the same ethnic or cultural background. Finally, this policy strategy could create more Black-owned small businesses, which has the potential to be a catalyst for wealth generation.
In each of these efforts, we suggest that Head Start and Child Care policymakers examine the implicit and explicit beliefs of those who bring forward ideas for policy making. Policymakers should ask themselves whether they would make a different policy choice if representatives from the group to whom the policy applies were present. Stepping back to examine policies from this alternate perspective is an important strategy. Other considerations include writing down decision-making factors to document the motivators underlying the policy, discussing those motivators within and across federal ECE agencies that serve families and young children, and ensuring that policy making teams are diverse and include Black people from a range of backgrounds and with different viewpoints. Finally, it can be helpful for policymakers to utilize a racial equity impact analysis.
The federal government can play a key role in addressing inequities experienced by Black families and ECE professionals who interface with the early care and education system. This will require that federal agencies commit time and resources for training and professional development, data collection and analysis, standards that embed incentives and accountability, policy creation, and reflective practice. While not a quick or easy fix, initiating these strategies is an important step toward undoing hundreds of years of racist practices and policies that have harmed Black families and workers and limited equitable experiences within the early care and education system.
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[i] During Reconstruction (approximately 1865-1877), women did not yet have the right to vote.
[iii] Affordability can be defined in many ways. Here, we refer to the affordability benchmark set by the Department of Health and Human Services, which considers child care to be affordable for low-income families if tuition co-pays do not exceed 7 percent of a household’s income.
[iv] Eligibility for Head Start is based on poverty status, defined as a family income below 100 percent of the federal poverty level. Children may also be categorically eligible if they are experiencing homelessness, living in foster care, or receiving public assistance (i.e., TANF or SSI). Additionally, 10 percent of slots must be reserved for children with disabilities.
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