(Last updated May 2008)
Introduction and Overview
Sweden has an explicit family policy, which, historically,
has been focused on protecting children, redistributing
income so as to assure an adequate standard of living to
all, compensating for the economic costs of rearing children
and giving people the economic resources to have children
when they so want, promoting gender equity, and facilitating
the reconciliation of work and family life. Although Swedish
family policy emerged out of concern with a low birthrate
and pronatalist goals in the 1930s, this has not been an
objective since World War II (Palme, et al., 2002; Greve,
1999; Palme and Wennemo, 1998; Ditch et al., 1996).
The key elements of Sweden's family policy are extensive
and universal support both for early childhood education and
care services and for an extended paid and job-protected
parental leave following child birth or adoption. Sweden is
among the very few countries that spend about the same
amount on childcare services as on family or child
allowances; and Sweden's family policy, like its social
policy generally, stresses universalism as a principle
rather than targeting on the poor.
Sweden experienced a major economic crisis in the early/mid
1990s. Economic growth was negative for some years and real
GDP fell. Its unemployment rate "exploded" in the early
1990s reaching a high of more than 8 percent, four times the
rate during the 1980s. The cost of unemployment benefits
rose dramatically and the budget deficit "boomed." Sweden is
one of the leaders in Europe in population aging and
beginning in 1998 reformed its generous old age pensions
system. During these years when the economy was under
pressure and unemployment rose, the child poverty rate
increased from 6.0 percent in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 1994,
using the U.S. absolute poverty measure and 2.6 percent
using the relative poverty measure (less than 50 percent of
median income). The rate rose subsequently. The poverty rate
of lone mothers increased during the mid-1990s, declining
somewhat by the end of the decade, as well. By the end of
the decade, the child poverty rate had declined to 5.3
percent and 4.2 percent in 2000.
The Swedish economy has recovered beginning in the late
1990s. In 2002 Sweden’s official unemployment rate was 5.1
percent, significantly lower than the OECD average of 6.3
percent. However, the rate climbed to 7.8 percent in 2005,
higher than the OECD average of 6.7 percent. Sweden has a
long-standing response to unemployment that includes a
stress on "active' rather than "passive" labor market
policies (education and training programs rather than
unemployment benefits). The Swedes continue to link receipt
of social benefits to work, or preparation for work.
During the period of "hard times" in the mid 1990s, Sweden
reduced its child benefit from about $100 to $80 a month,
the first ever cut in the nominal value of these benefits.
The supplementary benefit provided to larger families with
three or four children was eliminated. Child support
(advanced maintenance) benefits and housing allowances were
more constricted. Of particular importance, Sweden reduced
the rate at which social benefits replaced wages but not the
length of time recipients could receive the benefits. The
supply of childcare services was sustained but quality
declined somewhat. Parent fees rose (from 15-20 percent of
operating costs to 25 - 30 percent in some municipalities.
About 15 percent of the services were privatized; about half
of those now are for profit, operating largely through
contracts with local government. Privatization (to nonprofit
providers), decentralization, and an increase in user fees
for social services and early childhood education and care
services characterized much of the 1990s.
Despite the cuts, school meals remained free and available
to all children during these years, Sweden's universal
health care was sustained; and expenditures on social
assistance and special assistance to refugees were doubled
as a share of GDP. Moreover, family benefits, which had
declined from 4.6 percent of GDP in 1993 to 3.7 percent in
1997, began to rise again in 1998. Nonetheless, it was still
only 3.5 percent in 2003.
According to Swedish policy scholars Joachim Palme and
Irene Wennemo, family benefits were subject to "temporary
retrenchment rather than reform", but the cuts were modest
and there was no restructuring. Sweden experienced a
combination of cuts in transfers (cash benefits), increases
in taxes (higher social security contributions), rising
unemployment, and declining wages. It is this fourfold
combination-this quadruple whammy-that hurt children and
their families most, not the cuts in benefits and services
alone, which were really quite modest. Indeed, policies and
programs for children and their families have clearly been
As of mid-1998 child allowances had returned to their
nominal high of a few years earlier (only slightly below the
real high) and were worth about 7.5 percent of average
manufacturing wages, the supplementary benefit for larger
families was re-instated, benefit replacement rates had been
increased to 80 percent of prior wages, the block grants to
municipalities for social services including child care were
close to the high level of the earlier 1990s, the budget was
in surplus and the surplus was projected to be even larger
for next year. By 2001, child allowances were above their
earlier real high, 950 SEK for each of the first two
children and still higher for subsequent children. The
benefit was raised again several years later.
In short, the Swedish welfare state may be less generous
today than a dozen years ago but child-related benefits and
services have been protected. Benefit replacement rates are
generous. Child allowances are now above their earlier real
levels at 1050 SEK. Single parent families have been
protected. In a comparative sense, the Scandinavian model
remains extraordinarily generous, indeed the most generous
of all countries in the OECD, especially to children and
their families. Nonetheless, in its 2006 national report on
social conditions in Sweden, the National Board of Health
and Welfare highlighted two current challenges affecting
young people and their families. They first is the
increasing difficulty for youth of establishing themselves
in the labor market, particularly for those with a foreign
background. The second is the increase in ethnic
segregation in the metropolitan areas and the polarization
of social environment between native-born persons and
persons perceived as foreign by the majority of the
According to data provided by the Swedish Ministry of
Health and Social Affairs (2003), Swedish family policy
continues to be based on the principles of universality and
individual rights. It comprises: child and family cash
benefits, parent insurance, high quality child care, and
advance maintenance. Family benefits are aimed at reducing
the income disparities between those with children and those
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The major government agencies responsible for family policy
are the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the National
Board of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Education and
Research and the National Agency for Education, the National
Social Insurance Board and regional and local offices. The
final governmental responsibility for children rests with
the locality (municipality). The local government is
responsible for early childhood education and care (ECEC),
education, dental care and medical checkups of children, and
leisure time activities for children and youth. ECEC
services previously were administered by the National
Welfare Board, but in 1996 were transferred to the Education
Demographic and Other Social Trends
Sweden has a population of about 9 million, and is the
largest of the Nordic countries. Children constituted about
17 percent of its population, slightly below the OECD
average (about 19 percent) but slightly above the EU 15
average (16 percent) in 2005. The elderly constituted about
17 percent of its population, well above the OECD average of
about 14 percent, but about the same as that of the EU 15.
Its total fertility rate in 2004 was 1.75, slightly above
the EU average. About 55 percent of births occur outside of
marriage, but most are to two cohabiting parents living in
consensual relationships with their biological children. Its
teen birth rate is very low. Seventy-three percent of
children under the age of 18 live in a two-parent family,
with their biological parents, regardless of whether or not
the parents are legally married. About one-third of Swedish
children are likely to experience a parental divorce or
separation. Homosexual partners have the right to qualify as
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Historically, Sweden has been the prototypical Scandinavian
country, following a distinctive and generous pattern of
social policy. The emergence of a Swedish model in the
social policy field is largely a WWII phenomenon. It started
with the introduction of universal old-age pensions and
equally universal child benefits. In the 1950s this was
followed by the introduction of earnings-related benefits in
a universal framework. Social Security benefits were further
improved and extended in the 1960s and 1970s. The extension
of the maternity leave and benefit to a parental policy was
part of this development, as was the expansion of the public
social services for the elderly and then for children. These
benefits and services are financed by direct and indirect
taxes and by contributions from employers and employees. In
2003, Sweden spent 31.3 percent of GDP on social protection
(down from a high of 38.6 percent in 1993 and '94), but
still the highest proportion in the EU and OECD. More than 4
percent of GDP was spent on family benefits (cash and
services) in 2004, in comparison
to about 3.5 percent three years later.
There are several distinctive features of the Swedish
model. One is the strong emphasis on universal rather than
targeted and means-tested social policies. Sweden is one of
the two countries (along with Denmark) with the lowest
degree of income inequality. Social assistance exists in
Sweden and is locally administered, but it is a not a major
component of social protection. A second distinctive feature
is the stress on labor market policy and the strong link
between labor market and social policies. A third is the
emphasis on "active" rather than "passive" labor market
policies focusing on education and training of the
unemployed, rather than unemployment benefits. And a fourth
is a stress on gender equity.
In the late 1990s, Sweden's child poverty rate (using the
relative definition of less than 50 percent of median
income) at 2.6 percent was the lowest of 23 countries while
Sweden ranked 12th in per capita GNP. (This was at a time
when the U.S. child poverty rate ranked 22nd in that same
list, and its per capita GNP ranked second. In 2000, its
child poverty rate had increased to 4.2 percent using the
same relative measure, ranking 4th among 25 countries (after
Denmark, Finland, and Norway, lower than 22 of the 25), as
compared with the highest ranked United States.
For more information on the social security systems, labor
market regulations, collective bargaining, social and family
policies, see the International
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Child, Youth and Family Policy Regimes
Maternity, Paternity, Parental,
and Family Leaves
Paid, job-protected maternity, paternity, and parental,
leaves constitute a significant component of ECEC policy
(see below) and family policy, too (Gunnarsson et al., 1999;
see also Bernhardt, 2003). This policy of paid leaves
following childbirth (or adoption) has major consequences
for infant and toddler ECEC programs, affecting the age at
which out-of-home care may be needed. The Swedish Parental
Insurance benefit is the international exemplar. It was
established in 1974 and amended several times subsequently.
It is a universal social insurance benefit, to which all
parents are entitled when giving birth or adopting a child.
The insurance covers a right to leave from work with a job
guarantee and a right to financial support during the leave;
the benefit is included in taxable income.
Pregnancy benefit can be paid for 7 weeks until 11 days
before the expected birth to women who can no longer cope
with strenuous physical work demands; other pregnant women
may use their paid parental leave or sick leave for 60 days
before the expected birth. There is an associated two-week
paternity leave after childbirth.. Parental leave, totaling
480 days of paid leave, consists of two months reserved
exclusively for each parent and the remainder as a family
benefit. In an OECD review, 35 percent of Swedish fathers
took their full two months, the highest proportion in OECD
countries (OECD, 2006).The first 13 months of leave is paid
at 80 percent of wages up to a ceiling (and 100 percent for
civil servants), another three months at a low flat rate,
and the final three months unpaid, but still job-protected.
(A non-working mother is entitled to the minimum flat rate
benefit). (Private employers increasingly are "topping off"
the first four months, thus covering 100 percent of salary
for these months). The parental leave can be prorated (to
cover 12.5 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, or 100 percent
of time off from work) or shared by mother and father. The
paid leave portions may be used until the child’s eighth
birthday. All eligible mothers take advantage of the fully
paid leave and about 80 percent of the flat rate benefit is
claimed. About 75 percent of eligible fathers took some part
of the leave, but this amounted to only 19 percent of all
parental leave taken in 2004. On average, fathers were on
leave for 44 days (Chronholm, Haas and Hwang, 2007;
Gunnarsson et al., 1999; Swedish Ministry of Health and
Social Affairs, Swedish Family Policy, No. 11, April 2005;
and personal communication). Employers must be given at
least two months’ notice by employees regarding taking the
leave. The government has proposed to introduce a gender
equality bonus to induce more equal take-up of the leave
between mothers and fathers. The bonus would offer an extra
tax reduction to the parent with the lower wage when the
other parent stays at home. The parents need not be
Working parents may take up to 120 days a year paid leave to
care for an ill child under age 12, and aged 12-15, with a
doctor’s certificate. They may use 60 of those days to stay
home in the case of illness of their child's caregiver)
depending on the seriousness of the condition (Family
Leave). Fathers take about 41 percent of this leave. Working
grandparents may do the same. As of January 1, 2002, each
working parent is entitled to 5 days a year for personal
child needs (e.g., to visit a child's school).
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Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)
Early childhood education and care in Sweden has been given
high priority for nearly three decades and is one of the
cornerstones of Swedish family policy (OECD, 2001;
Gunnarsson, et al., 1999; Kamerman, 1998; Swedish Ministry
of Social Affairs, 2005). Sweden is one of the countries
included in the OECD (2001; 2006) 20-country study of early
childhood education and care.
Policies extending the supply of care and promoting high
quality have been strongly supported by the Parliament and
by the public at large. According to a recent report,
Swedish childcare has two objectives: (1) to make it
possible for parents to combine employment or studies with
family life, and (2) to support and encourage children's
development and learning and help them grow up under
conditions that are conducive to their well-being (OECD,
2001). Since the early 1970s, when the dual goals were
officially laid down with the launching of a large-scale
public childcare program, the program has been viewed as
including both care and education. In recent years, the
educational policy aspects became increasingly important and
in July 1996 responsibility for public childcare was
transferred from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs
to the Ministry of Education and Science (now Education and
Research). Starting in 1998, a voluntary form of pre-school
for six-year-olds was established within the state school
system. The system is designed to operate as a transition
year to formal learning. Municipalities are required to
offer places to all children; the participation rate is
currently 95 percent.
Swedish ECEC programs are designed to meet children's
needs for early education, socialization, and opportunities
for enhanced development as well as care. They cover the
normal work day and year, are publicly funded, delivered
through a free-standing autonomous system of pre-schools,
both full and part-time, and family day care homes, and
serve all children under compulsory school age who have
working mothers or mothers who are full time students. (The
government is increasingly stressing the need for access to
subsidized care regardless of parental employment status.
Since 2001, the children of unemployed parents are
guaranteed at least 3 hours of ECEC a day and full access
for all 4-5 year olds.) The programs were developed
initially as a service for the children of poor, working,
single mothers. However, with the rise in female labor force
participation rates in the 1960s and 1970s, and the high
current rates for mothers of preschool-aged children (about
81 percent when the youngest child is 3-5), they are
increasingly serving almost all children. Since January
2002, a maximum fee for ECEC programs went into effect,
reducing the cost of these programs for many families. The
fees are now equal to 1-3 percent of monthly family income
and cover about 9 percent of operating costs. Fees are
waived for children of low income families. The maximum fee
in US dollars for one child is $135, $107 for a second
child, and $54 for a third (OECD, 2006). The government has
established a policy of guaranteeing a place for any child
whose parents wish them enrolled, from the age of one year.
(Sweden's parental leave lasts for 18 months and infant care
is largely parental care.)
Swedish (and Danish) ECEC programs constitute the highest
quality of out-of-home care and education available
anywhere. Centers are held to the same standards of quality,
and charge the same fees to parents, regardless of whether
they are public, private non-profit or for-profit. More than
90 percent of children in preschool are in public or
publicly funded programs and only 3 percent are in
for-profit programs. Standards concerning group size,
staff:child ratios, and caregiver qualifications are high,
rigorously set and enforced, and are based on extensive
research. Staff salaries are comparable to average wages in
other occupations. Staff turnover is low (about 10 percent a
year). Even though staff: child ratios were lowered in the
mid-1990s as a consequence of cuts in public spending on
child care in Sweden, they still remained higher than in
The programs are universal and serve all children under
age 7, with priority for children with working mothers, lone
mothers, from immigrant or low-income families, or who have
a disability. All children aged 1-11 with working parents or
parents who are students, are guaranteed a place in good
quality care. As of 2001, children of unemployed parents are
guaranteed a place as well, albeit for part of the day. The
coverage rate for 2-5 year olds in center care or in
supervised family day care was close to 90 percent in 2006.
In 2006 some 74 percent of all six- to nine-year-olds were
enrolled in school-age childcare, the majority in
out-of-school centers, which are generally integrated into
the schools. The figure fell to 43 percent if school-age
children up to the age of 12 were included. Thirty percent
of children look after themselves after school (Statistics
Sweden, 2007). Forty-four percent of the under 3s and 95
percent of the 3-6 year olds were enrolled in 2003. As of
January 1, 2003, all 4 and 5 year olds are guaranteed a
place in preschool, regardless of their parents’ employment
status, if only for part of the day, if their parents wish
ECEC is universal, mandatory for municipalities to
provide, and voluntary for children to participate in.
Parents want their children to participate.
Family day care (called "child minding" in much of
Europe) is still regarded as secondary to group care
programs in Sweden, but is seen also as responding to some
parents' preferences and some children's needs. Family day
care providers are trained personnel, who receive good
salaries and benefits and are selected, guided, supervised,
and made ever more qualified by assigned and qualified
The center-right government formed in 2006 has proposed
financial policy reforms to the ECEC regime: a childcare
voucher system, a gender equality bonus, a voluntary
municipal child-raising allowance; and increased educational
content in preschool.
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Child Allowances are a cash benefit provided to families
with at least one parent residing in Sweden for at least 6
months, based on the presence and age of the child. The
first and current law was enacted in 1947, and applies to
Swedish residents with one or more children under age 16 (or
20 if a student, 23 if attending a special school for the
intellectually disabled). Child allowance is payable at the
rate of 1050 SEK a month (about $176). It is a universal
benefit. There is a small supplementary allowance for the
second child in two-children families. A special benefit for
large families -- with three or more children -- and linked
to child allowance, was eliminated in 1996 but re-instated
subsequently. An extended child allowance is payable for
children over 16 still attending compulsory school and for
those attending upper secondary school. The benefit is
excluded from taxable income. Children of widows and
widowers may receive child allowances in addition to the
child pension. Children of other single parents with full
custody receive a larger allowance, either from child
support payments or advanced maintenance allowance from the
state.. A special allowance is payable to parents adopting a
foreign child (from outside the country). The current
conservative government has announced its intention to open
the way for municipalities to introduce child-raising
allowances for the purpose of enabling parents with children
aged one to three to extend their time at home after the
expiration of their parental leave.
Child and Family Tax Benefits
Since the tax unit for income tax purposes is the
individual, there are no special tax concessions for
families in the Swedish system. The philosophy grows out of
the gender equity policy. Swedish employees pay
substantially less in the way of payroll taxes than in other
countries, but the government and employers contribute more.
Companies pay "employer taxes", sometimes earmarked for
certain social services, and a Swede working full-time pays
an average of 30-40 percent in direct taxes on income. In
addition Sweden has an indirect 25 percent state sales tax
(a VAT or Value Added Tax) on goods and services.
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Child maintenance or support is expected to be paid by the
non-custodial parent whether the parents are unmarried,
separated, or divorced. Parents can make an agreement
regarding the amount of the maintenance but in the case of
disputes the court decides. Each child is entitled to a
certain minimum amount, which is guaranteed by the
government. In cases where the non-custodial parent is not
able to pay at least the minimum, the government pays it.
Child support/maintenance can be advanced by the public
social insurance office and the amount paid is then
reclaimed from the parent who has to pay maintenance. The
child support benefit (guaranteeing a minimal level of
support to children in single-parent families) was reformed,
in the latter part of the 1990s in an effort at getting
non-custodial parents to provide more in the way of support.
The reform linked the court-ordered support awards more
closely to the non-custodial parent's income and eliminated
the indexing of the minimum support benefit. In 2007, the
guaranteed minimum support was SEK1273 per month (currently
about USD 213).
Almost all Swedish parents have joint legal custody after
separation or divorce or if unmarried: this does not mean
joint living arrangements. Child(ren) live predominantly or
exclusively with the mother (Bernhardt, 2003).
Other Child Conditioned
A widow or widower living with a child under the age of 18
is entitled to a universal survivor's adjustment pension
payable for 12 months, which may be extended for as long as
she/he is living with a child under age 12. An orphan up to
the age of 18 (20 if a student) is entitled to a child
pension of 30 percent of the Government-set “price base
amount” for each deceased parent. An orphan is also entitled
to 30 percent of the deceased parent’s earnings-related
Care Allowance. Parents of disabled or handicapped
children are entitled to a cash allowance to enable them to
take care of their child. The benefit level is related to
the child's needs.
A Housing Allowance (see below) is provided to low-wage
families with children where there is a need for a certain
size or standard or housing. The allowance takes into
account such factors as composition of household and housing
Social Assistance is a means-tested cash benefit available
to those in need of a safety net. About 4 percent claimed
assistance in 2003. Couples with children constitute around
15 percent of recipient households and lone mothers around
25 percent (in 1995). (Single individuals are the largest
group and constitute about 60 percent of the caseload.)
About 1/3 of all lone mothers claimed assistance in 1995,
primarily because of unemployment. Social assistance is
intended to be an aid for persons in temporary financial
need, but in recent years the period of dependence on
assistance has increased especially among lone mothers,
young unemployed, and refugees, and there is some discussion
in Sweden about this.
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Child and Adolescent Health
The health status of Swedish children is excellent. Infant
mortality rates are low, childhood mortality due to illness
is low, the mortality rates of children due to accidents is
among the lowest in the world, teen out-of-wedlock pregnancy
and abortion rates are very low. Nonetheless, there are some
concerns: According to a 2005 report, the rates of daily or
almost daily smoking prevalence for boys and girls in grade
9 were 5 and 13 percent, respectively, for that year.
Smoking prevalence was 18 percent among boys and 30 percent
among girls. Alcohol use appears to be increasing among
youth. There is also concern about rising rates of asthma
There is free health care for pregnant mothers and
children under school age in the municipalities in the form
of "maternal care centers" and "childcare centers." The care
is mostly preventive. One obligatory check-up for all
children is the 4-year examination. The results suggest that
there are significant differences in the health and
development of children by socio-economic status.
Since 1998, families with children, regardless of income, no
longer have to pay fees for health care services. Since the
1970s the municipalities have established special health
centers for adolescent boys and girls focused on the
prevention of poor health, providing information about sex,
and preventing teenage pregnancies and sexual diseases.
Children can use these centers at any age and can obtain
counseling services as well, especially during times of
crises (parents' divorce, child abuse). All tests are free.
Access to contraceptives is available to all, free of
charge. And the general rule is that children are granted
secrecy, even from their parents or authorities, unless the
child is in need of protection. All children are entitled to
school health care free of charge, again with a stress on
preventive health care and to help with information, advice,
and provision of contraceptives.
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School-Aged Children: Policies
Sweden is among the few countries with national data
regarding coverage of school-aged children in such programs.
About three-quarters of six- to nine-year-olds are enrolled
in after-school programs, which consist of "leisure time
centers",, family day-care homes, and open out-of-school
services. Most attend the centers, which are often linked
with preschool programs, and involve income-related fees.
Open out-of-school services are for children between the
ages of 10 and 12 who do not need the care and supervision
provided in the centers and family day-care homes.
Housing allowance is a means-tested benefit, the only
such benefit apart from social assistance. In contrast to
the general trend towards devolution, in 1994 the national
government took over the responsibility for housing
allowance from the localities. Families with children as
well as spouses and single persons are entitled to housing
allowance, if they are Swedish residents. It exists in two
- The income tested housing allowance that varies according
to age, income, housing cost, and the number of children;
- Rent payments, which are fully covered for social assistance
claimants with a supplement to the housing allowance.
It is a tax-free benefit and plays an important role in the
incomes of modest and low-income families. In the mid-1990s
it was reduced somewhat, eligibility criteria were more
sharply targeted on low-income
families, and it was made more restrictive. There is concern
that the reform will have negative consequences for families
with children and thus it is being closely monitored. Nearly
30 percent of Swedish households with children received a
housing allowance in 2001, largely single mothers (Swedish
Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, 2002). The scheme
benefits 82 percent of lone parent households (OECD, 2007).
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Full-time upper secondary pupils are eligible for financial
support through the first half of the calendar year in which
they turn 20. Universal monthly student grants are given to
all pupils without application, and means-tested extra
grants and, under certain conditions, grants for boarders,
are also available. The student grant currently amounts to
about US 174 (Ministry of Education and Research, 2008).
Click here to view in PDF format a table on
the Ages at which
children are legally entitled to carry out a series of acts
in the European Union. See Youth Policies
section for definition of terms used.
Reconciliation of Work and Family
The general culture in Sweden stresses the importance of
maintaining a balance between work and family life. Government
policies support this, in particular the extensive system
of subsidized early childhood education and care, and the
extensive and generous parental leave policies including post
childbirth, post adoption, and sick-child policies. Employers
must adapt to these policies and apparently have done so.
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