What The U.S. Must Learn From the Swedish Welfare State - by Charlie King
Last semester I had the extraordinary opportunity to study abroad in Stockholm, Sweden; however the path that led me there was a bit atypical. As is expected of any student considering a semester abroad, I spent a great deal of time researching possible destinations and their corresponding programs in an effort to figure out which aligned best with Wesleyan’s policies and my major requirements. It is strange reflecting on this experience almost five months removed because, at the time I was making my decision, Sweden was never a serious contender. Not only did I know very little about the country, but I had heard stories from friends about their remarkable experiences in more popular destinations like Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, and I thought that I wanted to recreate these anecdotes for myself. As fate would have it, however, just a few months later I found myself on a flight from LaGuardia to Sweden’s capital city: a city that I quickly came to love.
If you are like most people, you probably know little about Sweden besides its impossibly difficult language and propensity for happiness, however, it enjoys a few noteworthy distinctions. IKEA, Spotify, H&M, The Pirate Bay, Absolut Vodka, and ABBA all originated there; it boasts an excessively attractive and tall population; it has a word describing the act of taking coffee breaks from work (fika); and Swedish meatballs are some of the best in the world. Indeed, Sweden’s rich, unique culture left a lasting impression on me, but as a government major I found myself captivated by a less-talked-about aspect of Swedish society, its welfare state. The opportunity to live in and observe a political system so divergent the United States significantly defined my experience.
The notion of the welfare state has played a fundamental role in shaping Sweden’s economic, social, and political trajectory since the 19th century. During this period, there existed a hostile divide between the state’s working proletariat and the business-owning bourgeoisie. The former felt as though they were being treated unfairly and deprived of basic rights. Encouraged by the socialist movements sweeping across continental Europe around the same time, disillusioned laborers took it upon themselves to unify and create their own civil society, which included the development of education programs, publishing houses, sports associations, and women’s clubs.
This societal fracturing continued to worsen and eventually became so pronounced that a social democratic party was created with the singular goal of pulling neglected citizens from the periphery into the nation’s fabric. To this end, programs like One’s Own Home and The People’s Home not only expanded the inclusivity of citizenship but also introduced deeper social and economic efforts to fundamentally change what it meant to be a Swedish citizen. In this regard, the social democratic movement in Sweden was organic and internal, and was thus much more successful in securing legitimacy than its counterparts in Germany, for example, where socialists remained a minority fringe group. The longevity and success of the Swedish welfare state dates back to these early social democrats whose inclinations for compromise and pragmatism over obstinacy and chaos created a sense of legitimacy in the state and its ability to affect positive change on citizens’ behalf.
In the 21st century, the legacy of the aforementioned struggle is evident in a thriving Sweden. A simplified conception of the modern Swedish welfare state emphasizes substantial spending on a variety of social programs with the understanding that these initiatives will enhance the lives of citizens and, by extension, economic health overall; an important point to make here is that unlike a liberal regime in a democratic state that might engage in deficit spending to fund social welfare initiatives, the Swedish government relies almost exclusively on tax revenue. Welfare state critics cite income tax rates as high as 60 percent as proof of the inefficiency and overreach that characterizes the welfare model, but a closer look at Sweden’s spending suggests otherwise. Sweden’s superior systems of healthcare, education, and parental leave vary drastically from the unequal, inefficient policies of the U.S. but have precipitated an egalitarianism and class compression that Americans should envy.
Many on the left believe that “single-payer healthcare”—a popular phrase among pundits and politicians, especially in the wake of the failed American Healthcare Act—is the direction the U.S., as a developed, industrialized democracy, must be heading. Under such a system, the state assumes responsibility for providing a single, robust healthcare plan to the entire population; while this system is not entirely free to patients, there are myriad checks in place that minimize out-of-pocket payment. The U.S., on the other hand, adheres to a system in which private insurance providers compete for business and where service is funded by employers, state-designated funds and in many cases personal fees.
The Swedish model provides a stark contrast to our own. In Sweden, a quasi-single payer system provides advanced medical care to all 9.5 million citizens. Swedes pay taxes to the state as well as to the local municipality and county in which they reside; these localities bear the responsibility of providing coverage, and they are required by law to do so. The immense benefits of this decentralized system are evident in a population far healthier than America’s. Consider that the life expectancy in the former is an impressive 80.2 years for men and 84.1 years for women while in the latter life expectancies hover around 77.5 years for men and 81.1 years for women. And, when Swedes do fall ill, they are encouraged to take time away from the office, a luxury that individuals of all industries and socioeconomic strata can afford considering employees are entitled to up to two weeks of paid leave at 80 percent of salary.
In terms of education, Sweden requires nine years of schooling beginning at age six, and many students continue on to gymnasium (Swedish college) where they are able to pursue a number of academically oriented national programs or more practical vocational programs. Furthermore, education in Sweden is free. Yes, free as in it costs students nothing to attend so long as they meet the various academic requirements. Free! While free education is a viable option for any U.S. child through high school, the notion of a free college education is still incredibly foreign. Similar to healthcare, and all other social services for that matter, Swedish education is funded at the municipal level via tax revenue and is supplemented by state grants.
One caveat that must be addressed is the fantastic cost of living in Sweden and especially Stockholm. Unlike many universities in the U.S. where the costs of food, room and board are included in the terribly expensive tuition, in Sweden universities are strictly places to study, socialize and attend lecture. This means that students, who typically move into their own place for college, must pay for food, transportation and leisure. The result is a shockingly large proportion of students graduating with debt, almost 80 percent compared to 50 percent of students here. Despite this tendency to accrue debt, the Swedish state is much more reasonable in its process of collecting payment; the interest rates of 3.8 percent are a fifth of what many U.S. students must pay, and Swedish students can pay back these loans until they turn 60. Thus, despite higher levels of students graduating with debt, it is remarkably easier to deal with and puts less strain on anxious graduates trying to find their footing.
Parents are allotted 480 days of paid parental leave, 390 of which come at 80 percent of salary. While 90 days are reserved specifically for each parent, the remaining 390 days can be divided in any way a couple deems most appropriate. As if this policy wasn’t laudable enough, it applies equally to unemployed individuals and is renewed with each new child. Preschool is available to all new parents at a reasonable cost that is often covered by a child allowance afforded to parents by the state.
While exploring Stockholm and wandering its beautiful streets, the number of fathers pushing children in strollers or enjoying a cup of coffee as their children slept was shocking, especially since it is such a rare sight in the U.S. The goal of Sweden’s generous parental leave policy is just this, specifically lessening the maternal burden of raising a child, and in this regard it is decades ahead of the U.S. The effects have been far reaching, shattering the pervasive perception that raising a child and pursuing a career are incompatible; in Sweden, all of the resources necessary to reconcile these pursuits are made available in an effort to alleviate the many difficulties of parental care, and to this end it has been wildly successful.
Fantasizing about the socialist policies of Sweden’s welfare state and their ability to foster such high standards of living may seem misguided, considering the immense problems our own political system is confronting. However, by highlighting aspects of the Swedish state that work exceptionally well, the policies that we must work to modernize and improve become more obvious. The unfortunate reality facing the U.S. is an inadequate healthcare system, an increasingly inept public schooling system, and hindering parental leave policies, all of which do as much to exacerbate adversity and inequality as they do to address it. In this vein, my semester in Stockholm made it abundantly clear that the U.S. can learn a great deal from its Scandinavian counterpart.
This realization was sharpened by the ongoing 2016 presidential election. It was incredibly frustrating to hear policies like universal healthcare and free college education ridiculed for being unrealistic, quixotic, or even disadvantageous. Meanwhile, politicians on the right proposed dismantling the Affordable Care Act (we all saw just how well that went), tax cuts for the hyper wealthy, and an increase in reliance on vouchers for private and charter schools as solutions. Such foolish willingness to ignore the harsh truths facing our nation and instead promote reckless policies whose value is limited to amplifying wealth disparity, slashing the capacity of vital social programs, and bolstering the privileged is incomprehensible.
Even worse is the fact that the latter group prevailed, riding a wave of lies and impossible promises into the White House, the constituency that elected them just now realizing its mistake. Things will not improve under the Trump administration. Betsy DeVos will quicken the decay of our public school system. A Republican-controlled congress will strive to dismantle the largely successful and inclusive ACA. And the anachronistic regulations that compose parental leave policy will continue to impede economic strength.
Unfortunately, convenient excuses exist as to why successful welfare policies of European socialist states cannot be implemented in the U.S. Indeed, Sweden’s population is much smaller and more homogenous than our own, and it is largely uninvolved in international affairs meaning the majority of its legislative might is directed at citizens. Yet, Sweden has also succeeded in developing a culture that values the genuine well being of all its citizens and recognizes the state’s ability to serve this role. Since the end of the 19th century, the Swedish state has worked aggressively to foster equality and a shared identity via inclusive, universal legislation. In this regard the U.S. has no excuse, and any attempts at making one are farcical. A better explanation of the U.S.’s unwillingness to implement similar policies lies in its legacy of prejudice and discrimination. While slavery and Jim Crow are gone, the American elite’s commitment to a social caste system remains. Our government has proven that it doesn’t place equal value on all of its citizens and is thus reluctant to promote those services that precipitate equal opportunity. Our appalling system of incarceration and homogeneity of elected officials offer proof.
I offered healthcare, education and parental leave as policy areas in which the U.S. can learn from the Swedish welfare state, however this list isn’t exhaustive. Unemployment, retirement, waste management and environmental regulation are all areas in which the Swedes excel. While I recognize the incredible difficulty in totally overhauling a political system and implementing something entirely new, I am baffled by the notion that certain policies cannot be reconciled in the American system. Not only is this contention untrue, but it also bolsters the self-righteous misconception that the U.S. and its policies serve as the international standard. As long as we continue to silence progressive voices advocating seemingly “radical” change, we will continue to provide a disservice to fellow citizens in serious need of assistance.