The lowest unemployment rate that the United States economy can healthily sustain is somewhere between 3.5% and 4.5%, according to the Federal Reserve. With average unemployment in America listed at 3.7% between December 2018 and November 2019, the country is teetering on the precipice of having too few people out of work, as odd as that might sound.
There’s no such thing as full employment. A small percentage of the labor force will always be changing careers or involved in some other between-jobs activity that accounts for a natural unemployment rate of about 4%. Theoretically, an unemployment rate that’s too low could make it hard for employers to fill positions and expand their businesses, causing the economy to contract—but that’s a rare problem. High unemployment is more common and much more indicative of economic trouble.
While it’s a good indicator, the statistic can be misleading. The unemployment rate does not factor in people who are underemployed or who aren’t working full time. Although a low unemployment rate seems positive at first glance, it doesn’t consider people who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. It doesn’t consider that younger workers change jobs more frequently and therefore enter and exit the job market more often. It doesn’t adjust for seasonal jobs, and it doesn’t count people who are out of the labor force because of a disability or who have simply given up looking for work. What is certain, however, is that high unemployment rates are usually bad news for communities.
Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data released in December 2019, Stacker identified the counties with the highest unemployment rates in all 50 states. The data represents the average unemployment rate from December 2018 to November 2019. It also ranks where each county falls on the list of the 3,144 counties that partition the U.S. As previously discussed, many complex factors go into the unemployment rate, but each slide attempts to summarize some potential primary drivers of the situation in each county profiled on the list.
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- Unemployment rate: 7.6% (106.2% higher than national average)
- #75 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
A local news outlet recently dubbed Wilcox County in the southwest portion of the state as “the worst county to live in Alabama.” More than one in three people there live below the poverty line—that’s more than double the overall poverty rate in Alabama, which is high compared to the national average—and the population is steadily shrinking.
- Unemployment rate: 19.6% (429.2% higher than national average)
- #1 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Alaska’s Kusilvak Census Area in the Lower Yukon comprises 13 villages inhabited by 8,000 residents, mostly from the indigenous Yup'ik group. There are almost no businesses in the remote landscape, and the area’s isolation increases the cost of shipping goods both in and out by 40%. Its inhabitants struggle with generational poverty and historical trauma, all of which combine to make it one of the poorest places in the United States and the county with the highest unemployment rate in the entire nation.
[Pictured: Aerial view of Tutakoke Bird Camp, Coast of the Bering Sea just south of Hooper Bay, Alaska—the largest community within the census area.]
- Unemployment rate: 16.7% (352.7% higher than national average)
- #3 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Nearly 28% of Yuma County’s population does not have a high school diploma—more than twice the rate of both Arizona and the nation—and it lags both in terms of residents with an associate degree or higher by margins of 15–20%. It also has a higher rate of people on public assistance and without health insurance. Job growth there is projected at just 1.5% over the next two years.
- Unemployment rate: 6.9% (87.8% higher than national average)
- #121 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Located in the largely impoverished Mississippi Delta region, Chicot County is suffering from the symptom at the heart of the larger Delta’s economic woes: depopulation. Beyond a pharmacy, a couple of banks, law firms, liquor stores, and pawnshops, there are very few businesses there that offer upward mobility for the farmworkers who have long dominated the region as part of the legacy of slavery. In recent years, Chicot lost two catfish farms, a factory that made food for catfish, and a glove factory.
[Pictured: The Chicot County Courthouse.]
- Unemployment rate: 19.2% (418.3% higher than national average)
- #2 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Just as California is home to some of the wealthiest communities in America, it’s also home to some of the poorest, most notably, the desperately impoverished Imperial Valley. Although it’s home to fertile farmland, Imperial County is also on the edge of the desert, which helps to explain its status as #2 in terms of national unemployment. With an average high temperature of 103 degrees in June, the aging population of farmworkers there is largely too old to work in the fields—and that work is seasonal anyway—and low-wage retail and fast-food jobs present the bulk of the other options.
[Pictured: Agricultural fields in Imperial County, California.]
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- Unemployment rate: 6.1% (65% higher than national average)
- #213 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Huerfano County experienced a mining boom in the 1930s, the county’s heyday, when 17,000 people lived there. Today, the sparsely populated rural outpost can claim less than half that many residents. A prime example of Colorado’s—and America’s—stark rural/urban divide, the population is not just much smaller than that of Denver or the other rapidly expanding wealthy cities and metro suburbs, but it’s also much older. In 1990, the median age in Huerfano County was 40, but by 2015 it was 53.5, more than one-and-a-half times older than the median age in the state, making it among Colorado’s fastest-aging counties.
- Unemployment rate: 4% (9.4% higher than national average)
- #1,229 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Connecticut is the only state in America without a single county with a median household income lower than the national median of $57,652; nearly all 50 states have at least one county that drops below $40,000. In Windham County, the median household lives on a respectable $62,553, alongside a vibrant manufacturing sector, a large university, a booming tourist economy, and extensive naval defense and aerospace industries. In short, Windham might be in the doldrums by Connecticut standards, but it seems to be doing just fine.
[Pictured: Willimantic Town Hall in Windham County, Connecticut.]
- Unemployment rate: 3.9% (5.1% higher than national average)
- #1,397 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Like Windham County, Conn., Kent County boasts a slew of pluses, including several colleges and universities, excellent transportation infrastructure, a major Air Force base, several major corporate employers, a destination tourist economy, and a highly educated workforce. One reason for the high unemployment—though comparatively, 3.9% is not high at all—is that jobless numbers are not seasonally adjusted, and much of Kent County is a coastal summer community.
[Pictured: The Old State House, in Kent County, Dover, Delaware.]
- Unemployment rate: 5.8% (57.1% higher than national average)
- #288 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Hendry County has long been almost entirely dependent on agriculture, with the sugar industry being by far its most important economic contributor. The county was hit especially hard by the 2008 recession and never fully recovered. Advances in mechanized sugar production, along with the fact that it’s seasonal work for the humans who still contribute to it, have sent Hendry County into a years-long economic stagnation.
- Unemployment rate: 9.1% (146% higher than national average)
- #36 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
As in so many other states in America, rural Georgia is being left behind while its cities and metropolitan suburbs expand and concentrate the state’s wealth—and Telfair County is living proof. In Telfair, 29% of the population lives in poverty, its population has decreased since the Great Recession, and its economic future is precarious. If the Husqvarna Company, the county’s largest employer, can’t find a buyer for its lawnmower plant in McRae, the county stands to lose 1,000 jobs.
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- Unemployment rate: 3.6% (3.9% lower than national average)
- #1,731 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
In the third quarter of 2019, Hawaii County lost 1,500 non-agricultural wage and salary jobs compared to the same quarter in 2018, an increase of a full 2.2%. In the same time period, private building permits declined as well, indicating that fewer businesses might be opening compared to the previous year.
- Unemployment rate: 6.7% (79.9% higher than national average)
- #151 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
When Jaype Mill in the town of Pierce closed in 2000, it represented the peak of the decline of the forest products services industry in Clearwater County. Although the economy showed signs of improvement in the early 2000s, the 2008 recession swept away those gains. Also, the population plummeted from a peak of 9,232 in 1996 to 8,562 in 2014, while Idaho as a whole gained 17% population during that time.
[Pictured: Clearwater River near Orofino, Idaho—the county seat of Clearwater County.]
- Unemployment rate: 7.0% (88.8% higher than national average)
- #120 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Less than 7% of Hardin County’s population has a bachelor’s degree while over one-third have only a high school diploma; more than 18% of the population never graduated high school. Hardin County also suffers from the steep population decline that plagues so many underemployed regions, losing 14% of its population between 2000 and 2014.
- Unemployment rate: 5.3% (42.8% higher than national average)
- #463 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
The poverty rate in Vermillion County is higher than 15%—more than 20% of children under the age of 18 live in poverty. That’s much higher than the state as a whole, and Vermillion also lost roughly 5% of its population between 2010 and 2018 alone.
[Pictured: The Vermillion County Jail and Sheriff's Residence, now the Vermillion County Historical Society's museum, located in Vermillion County, Indiana.]
- Unemployment rate: 4.2% (12.9% higher than national average)
- #1,122 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Near the exact center of Iowa, Marshall County is dominated by Marshalltown, which is home to nearly two-thirds of the county’s population. The region suffered an extraordinary population loss between 1980 and 1990, going from more than 102,000 residents to fewer than 94,000 in just 10 years. In the ensuing decades, the population has recovered some, but the region remains dependent on a declining agricultural sector; between 1995 and 2019, Marshall County received nearly $258 million in farm subsidies.
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- Unemployment rate: 6% (63.1% higher than national average)
- #228 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
The overall unemployment rate in Kansas is dropping, but 15 counties in the southeastern portion of the state are lagging. Among them is Linn, where unemployment is much higher than in the rest of the state. The decline of the state’s manufacturing industry has been hard on that portion of Kansas, which is less reliant on agriculture than much of the rest of the state.
- Unemployment rate: 12.1% (227.7% higher than national average)
- #12 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Although Magoffin County was among the hardest hit by job loss in the state, it is certainly not alone. Unemployment rose in 99 of Kentucky’s 120 counties between July 2018 and July 2019, following continuing trends of economic decline in Kentucky and the Appalachia region.
- Unemployment rate: 10.1% (173% higher than national average)
- #22 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
In Louisiana, counties are called parishes, and a recent report listed East Carroll Parish as among the top 10 least healthy parishes in the entire state. While that might seem unrelated to joblessness, there’s a connection between physical and mental health and a person’s ability to work. About 38% of the parish lives in “poor or fair” health, compared to 21% in Louisiana overall and 12% in the best-performing parishes.
- Unemployment rate: 4.7% (27.3% higher than national average)
- #737 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Washington County has been hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic, the most recent pile-on to a slew of other problems that were years in the making. Much of the county, which includes the easternmost point in the continental United States, was already dilapidated and primed for a drug crisis from stagnant development, population decline, and falling school enrollments.
- Unemployment rate: 7.6% (105.9% higher than national average)
- #76 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Many of the problems facing Worcester County—and much of Maryland’s Eastern Shore—can be traced to the 2008 recession. The region made significant gains in the early 2000s, but the economic crisis quickly erased them. The area has recovered some since, but much more slowly than the rest of the country; the Eastern Shore as a whole had a 2017 unemployment rate of 5.3% compared to the state average of 4%.
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- Unemployment rate: 4.6% (25.6% higher than national average)
- #781 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
The tiny, isolated island town of Nantucket is a county within itself; in fact, it’s the only place in North America to have the same name for a county, town, and island. Far from struggling with poverty or economic decline, it’s long been a destination for the East Coast elite—summer destination, that is. Its local population of 10,000 expands to as many as 60,000 in the summer, so high unemployment numbers can be almost exclusively attributed to seasonal adjustment.
- Unemployment rate: 10.2% (176.2% higher than national average)
- #21 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
For decades, Mackinac County has put all of its economic eggs in the single basket of tourism, a one-industry over-reliance that has made it hard for locals to find steady work that pays the bills. County officials have long been trying to spur an economic development plan for the Upper Peninsula enclave, but have faced resistance from the many local retirees who live comfortably and don’t want the quaint culture of their community disrupted.
- Unemployment rate: 8.2% (120.6% higher than national average)
- #51 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Clearwater County was recently ranked as one of the least healthy counties in the state of Minnesota. Northwest Minnesota in general, despite a relatively stable agricultural sector, suffers from lower incomes and higher poverty rates than other regions of the state.
- Unemployment rate: 15.1% (308.4% higher than national average)
- #4 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
The economy of Jefferson County continues to be haunted by the legacy of slavery, as is the whole of Mississippi, one of the poorest states in America. About 85% of the county is African-American, the highest concentration of black Americans in any county in the country, and many there are trapped in generational poverty while a tiny percentage of the county owns most of the land. Unemployment is high because it’s incredibly difficult for businesses to thrive; in 2012, retail spending in Jefferson County was less than $2,900 per person for the whole year.
- Unemployment rate: 6.1% (64.3% higher than national average)
- #219 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Located just south of the exact center of Missouri, Laclede County has long been suffering from economic decline. Manufacturing was the economic driver of the county and the region, but the years-long offshoring of jobs has sent the sector into a tailspin. The per capita income in Laclede is less than $20,000, and 18% of the population lives below the poverty line.
[Pictured: The Laclede County Jail, as it served until 1955, it is now the Laclede County Historical Museum.]
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- Unemployment rate: 7.5% (104% higher than national average)
- #78 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
In the early 2010s, Glacier County began a slide toward poverty that is directly because of the current unemployment rate. While the population didn’t decline, as it did in so many other counties struggling with joblessness, the per capita income fell and remained below $17,000—less than $34,000 for the median household. Landing well below the rest of Montana and the nation, roughly one in three residents live in poverty.
- Unemployment rate: 5.5% (49.2% higher than national average)
- #372 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
According to the Omaha World-Herald, the entire economy of Nebraska has been rattled by one event: the trade war. The international dispute has cost farmers in the state a combined $1 billion in lost revenue. Rural areas are often hit hardest in these scenarios, and Arthur County is one of the least populous counties in the entire country.
- Unemployment rate: 5.3% (42.6% higher than national average)
- #469 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Nye County is one of the most rural counties in Nevada, and it’s been hit particularly hard by the state’s growing opioid crisis. Job seekers there are struggling with another barrier as well: a lack of connectivity. A full 65% of America’s rural population lives without sufficient telecommunications, and more than half of Nevada’s rural counties, including Nye, lack broadband services that meet current FCC standards.
- Unemployment rate: 3.1% (15.3% lower than national average)
- #2,242 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
That the highest unemployment rate in the state is 3.1% speaks volumes about New Hampshire’s economy. One county, however, has to be at the bottom, and it’s not surprising that it’s Coos County. Until 2017, when Belknap and Carroll Counties edged slightly above it, Coos County had spent decades holding the distinction of having the highest poverty rate in the state.
- Unemployment rate: 7.3% (97.8% higher than national average)
- #91 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Cape May County is a wealthy summer destination on the South Jersey Shore. In May 2019, the county hit a milestone when the tourism industry surpassed $6.6 billion, thanks to its 10 million annual visitors. Since the unemployment rate isn’t seasonally adjusted, the majority of its status as having the highest unemployment rate in the state can be attributed to the fact that it explodes with commerce in the summer and lies dormant in the offseason.
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- Unemployment rate: 12.3% (233.1% higher than national average)
- #11 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
New Mexico is one of the poorest states in America, and Luna County is among the poorest in New Mexico. The median household income in Luna is 30% lower than in New Mexico as a whole, and that disparity plagues its residents with problems that go far beyond joblessness. For example, 294 out of every 100,000 people in Luna die of heart disease compared to 185 out of 100,000 in the state.
- Unemployment rate: 5.7% (53.1% higher than national average)
- #324 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Hamilton County has the highest unemployment rate in the state, but it’s not alone in the Adirondack Region of New York in its economic struggles. A recent report from the Adirondack Foundation shows that towns and counties throughout the region are grappling with many of the same obstacles as Hamilton, including loss of industry, drug addiction, lack of health care, and insufficient public transportation.
- Unemployment rate: 8.7% (134% higher than national average)
- #40 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
North Carolina’s low unemployment rate of 3.5% represents real progress, indeed. What that figure masks, however, is how over-represented rural eastern North Carolina is among the communities that have suffered—Hyde County among them. Hyde is among the 26 eastern counties that have lost jobs since the beginning of the Great Recession and, not surprisingly, is where the state’s concentration of unemployment is highest.
- Unemployment rate: 8.1% (119.5% higher than national average)
- #53 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Rolette County has been rated as having the lowest quality of life in all of North Dakota. While much of the state is benefitting from the energy industry, nearly one out of three Rolette residents are living in poverty—triple the state average of 11%. The median household income there is just above $36,000 and the life expectancy from birth is just 73, a full seven years less than the statewide average.
[Pictured: Coghlan Castle, a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Rolette County, North Dakota.]
- Unemployment rate: 8.3% (124.1% higher than national average)
- #46 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Economically, there’s virtually no county in America quite like Monroe. Although it suffers from the same population loss and economic decline that define the rest of Appalachian Ohio, the county reported an astronomical 26.7% increase in GDP last year. That’s because five of the six most productive gas wells in Ohio are located there, and all that new wealth didn’t benefit the average county resident.
[Pictured: Knowlton Covered Bridge, located in Monroe County, Ohio.]
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- Unemployment rate: 6.2% (67.7% higher than national average)
- #198 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Many farmers in Oklahoma were struggling for years with declining profits before the trade war made things markedly worse, although payments from the Trump administration have softened the blow. Growers in the state have received $156 million spread across 21,000 payments so far, with nearly one-third going to just five counties. Two counties—one of which was Latimer County—got none.
- Unemployment rate: 7.7% (106.9% higher than national average)
- #72 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
More than 35% of the residents of Grant County are over the age of 60, and more than a quarter are older than 65. The aging, rural, and remote county is most famous for a 2016 standoff between federal agents and anti-government extremists led by Ammon Bundy, and the Canyon Creek Fire that incinerated much of the region the year before.
- Unemployment rate: 6% (62.7% higher than national average)
- #231 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, only one is classified as “distressed:” Forest County in the state’s Appalachia region. Between 2016 and 2017, the per capita market income there dropped from an already low $15,440 to $12,458, a decrease of 19% in a single year. That’s $30,711 lower than the state average.
- Unemployment rate: 3.9% (5.5% higher than national average)
- #1,378 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
In 2019, CNBC ranked Rhode Island as the worst state in America for business. The unenviable distinction results from the state’s high cost of doing business, poor infrastructure, and overall economy. It’s Rhode Island’s fifth time on the bottom of the list. The capital of the tiny New England state is Providence, the county seat of Providence County.
- Unemployment rate: 5.8% (55.7% higher than national average)
- #300 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
An emergency medical center in the tiny town of Denmark is the only local health service in all of Bamberg County since the town of Bamberg’s hospital closed down in 2012. Like so many struggling rural enclaves in South Carolina and the nation, Bamberg County struggles with an aging, declining population and losing industries that once supported the community. Once a timber processing and manufacturing hub, Bamberg County suffered when employers cut workers or closed down altogether.
[Pictured: The Bamberg Post Office, in Bamberg, South Carolina.]
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- Unemployment rate: 8.9% (141.4% higher than national average)
- #38 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
There is a direct correlation between poverty and unemployment: When one rises, the other tends to as well. That doesn’t bode well for much of America, where nearly one in three counties are experiencing recent increases in poverty. Among the hardest hit has been rural and isolated Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, where poverty grew by 13.3 points between 2016 and 2018 alone to an astonishing poverty rate of 54%.
[Pictured: The White River in the Badlands National Park, South Dakota.]
- Unemployment rate: 6% (63.1% higher than national average)
- #229 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
The most isolated county in all of Tennessee, Hancock County is nestled deep in the Cumberland Mountains of Appalachia. Although the number of counties in Appalachia classified as “distressed” has shrunk to the lowest point since 2008, 80 counties are still on the list—nine of which are in Tennessee. The most unfortunate of them all is Hancock, where the 2017 per capita income was just $15,282.
- Unemployment rate: 9.7% (163.1% higher than national average)
- #26 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
The southern border counties of Southwest Texas are among the poorest in America, and Starr County—part of the largely destitute Rio Grande Valley and a scattering of tiny rural towns—is the second-poorest county in Texas, with over 35% of the population living in poverty.
[Pictured: A view of the Rio Grande River, where Starr County is located in Texas.]
- Unemployment rate: 7.1% (91.3% higher than national average)
- #112 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Garfield County joins Emery and Carbon counties as the poor, rural epicenter of Utah’s public health crisis, which mostly stems from drug overdoses and suicide—the main reason all three counties are among the five poorest in Utah. Conversely, the poverty they endure is the primary driver of the twin crises.
- Unemployment rate: 3.9% (5.1% higher than national average)
- #1,396 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
In both 2018 and 2019, Orleans County in Vermont was ranked as one of the unhealthiest counties in the state, as well as the top two for poor mental health. In terms of so-called health factors (behaviors like smoking and excessive drinking) Orleans ranked dead last. It also has the highest teen birth rate of any county: 27 births per 1,000 females ages 15–19 compared to six per 1,000 in Chittenden County.
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- Unemployment rate: 5.5% (48.9% higher than national average)
- #374 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Petersburg’s modern troubles began in 1985 when B&W consolidated its operations in Georgia and closed its plant in Petersburg, taking 4,000 jobs with it. This massive hit to the local economy accelerated the white flight that began a decade earlier and contributed to an overall decline in population from 46,267 in 1975 to 32,000 in 2005. By 2016, 16% of Petersburg was 65 or older, poverty was entrenched, and unemployment was—and continues to be—on the rise.
- Unemployment rate: 11.7% (215.7% higher than national average)
- #13 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
The poverty rate in Ferry County is higher than 21%. Located between Washington’s border with Canada to the north and the Colville Indian Reservation to the south, it’s one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state. Its main economic and employment drivers are the withering mining and timber industries.
- Unemployment rate: 12.8% (246.5% higher than national average)
- #9 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Over a quarter-million West Virginians live in distressed counties—the most dire economic classification—and among them are the residents of Calhoun County. The heart of Appalachia, West Virginia is adding distressed counties even as the greater Appalachia region is shedding them. Many factors are driving the economic decline of West Virginia, one of the poorest states in America, but none more so than the collapse of the coal industry, which was the state’s dominant economic force for generations.
- Unemployment rate: 7.4% (98.8% higher than national average)
- #88 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
Menominee County is named for the Native American tribe that still lives in the area. The most sparsely populated county in Wisconsin, Menominee County has a median household income that’s nearly $20,000 lower than the national median.
- Unemployment rate: 4.5% (20.7% higher than national average)
- #894 highest rate among all 3,144 counties
It’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly, Fremont County has the highest unemployment rate in Wyoming, which, although geographically large, is the most sparsely populated state in America. The whole of Wyoming is home to fewer than 600,000 people. It isn’t poor; it isn’t losing residents at an alarming rate; and its industries and economy are healthy. The answer might be that it competes with some of the lowest unemployment rates in America—most of Wyoming’s counties are sub-4%, with two counties boasting 2.9%, and one, Teton County, is all the way down at 2% unemployment.
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