Sweden's Social Welfare System Up Close
The majority of recipients of social welfare in the U.S. are lower-income people. In Sweden, on my visit with the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, I saw a contrast. From a journalist of economics, to a school principle, to a healthcare specialist, to a city mayor, everyone we met with saw themselves as beneficiaries of the country’s sophisticated social welfare infrastructure. I was impressed with how values of mutual aid and common welfare were embodied in a system in which everyone contributes, and everyone benefits. In Sweden, new parents get 480 days of parental leave and a child allowance from the state.
There is free day-care offered from age 1, and a free primary and secondary school system that promotes democratic values. School lunches are free for all students. University and post-graduate studies are free. Healthcare and dental coverage is high quality and universal, and patients choose their doctors. A public pension system reserves a portion of your income for retirement. There is an efficient public transportation system of metros, streetcars, buses, and commuter trains. Sweden is one of the most economically competitive countries in the world. Our group met with an expert in the Swedish economy who explained that Sweden has survived through the economic crisis by maintaining balanced fiscal budgets, and utilizing surpluses during downturns. Strict policies of rent control have prevented the housing market from "overheating" into a bubble which bursts and causes calamity. The country only spends 1.2% of GDP on national defence, allowing more funds to be spent on social welfare, ameliorating the impacts of financial crisis. Sweden pays for its social welfare system through one of the highest tax rates in the world. The people we talked to saw paying in as part of their self-interest. Everyone pays in, and everyone gets back. Mayor Anna Ljungdéll (MMF 2013) of the city of Nynäshamn told us, that the Swedish model provides better opportunity for the 'self-made men' because your family background is less of a factor in what kind of opportunities you have in life. Mayor Ljungdéll has pioneered several successful initiatives around public health, affordable housing, youth employment, and early childhood education. She described the Swedish model of consensual politics that allow her to get things done. She expressed that she took take pride in involving the opposition in the decision-making process, arguing that for democracy to function you have to have conflict, but you shouldn't have fights about everything. The Swedish model, she said, is deliberative, based on negotiation, standing together, corporate and working class collaborating In the town of Sigtuna we toured a municipal primary school. Students greeted the principal as we walked the halls. We saw a music class where students were playing flutes and guitars, and there is a section of the school for students with special needs. Students have the opportunity to study abroad in other European countries. We visited one classroom where students learn how to sew. They made colorful aprons that are then used in a cooking class that focuses on how to maintain a kitchen with local ingredients and environmentally-friendly practices. Sweden is not without problems, and we heard about several, particularly involving the social and economic integration of migrant and refugee communities. But the picture of Sweden that I took home with me is of a humane society in which the pooling of public resources towards common social goods has allowed for an increased quality of life for all. In the U.S., a fetishization of “market solutions” has limited our ability to deliver to citizens the universal services that we need to create a better quality of life.
While I do not think that the public sector can solve every problem, and private enterprise and civil society have important roles to play, my visit to Sweden helped reinforce that well-funded and well-designed public welfare systems can have a profound role in making life better, easier, more enjoyable, and giving people the opportunity to reach their highest potential.
Mike Medow, Director of Allied Media Projects in Detroit, is a Fall 2013 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.