Elsewhere in this issue, Sam Preston suggested we adopt the Swedish model of family policy [See Equity Between Generations] But what does that policy, with its greatly expanded social and governmental support for families and children, really entail?
Inga Gustafsson, a psychologist who works with Swedish families and teaches at Stockholm University, describes how the Swedish policy evolved, how it impacts families, and what future directions it might take. She is a member of the Swedish government’s Delegation for Children and Young People and an advisor to the Ministry of Social Affairs. We spoke with her in Stockholm this past January.
Robert: Could you sketch out an overview of the changes in the Swedish family since World War II?
Inga: Yes, perhaps I should start with the women. Almost all Swedish women are working outside the home. I think most of them want to work, but also the family economy is such that they have to work to maintain the standard of living that modern people here want to have. That means that most children, from about two years of age, are in day nurseries – and that is a big change since the second World War, when most women with children under school age were at home. By the time children enter school, they are rather socially independent.
Another change is in the fathers’ roles, and that’s a rather ambiguous situation. The fathers mean more to the children. They have more contact with the children than fathers before the second World War.
Diane: Because they’re at home more?
Inga: Yes. When a child is born a father receives ten days’ paid time off to stay at home. There’s also a leave – you can stay home for a year and receive 90% of your wages from the government. The Parliament has just decided that the next step is a year and half. And the government says it’s very important that the fathers take some of their leave. Ten or twenty percent of the fathers make use of it now.
You can also stay home and collect 90% of your wages when your children are ill. When your children start day nursery, or when they enter school, you can stay with them for a fortnight so they get a very soft introduction. And every year you have an appointment to spend a day with your child in the school room, and so on – and that’s for both parents.
So the fathers have closer contact with the children. But at the same time the women are more economically independent, and the whole process of reproduction is under the control of the women, so many men feel that they are secondary – that the basic unit is the mother and the child. When there are divorces it’s often the wife who takes the initiative.
Robert: In divorce cases, do the children usually go with the mother?
Inga: Yes, but even after the divorce the law says that normally both parents still have custody. Even if the child lives with the mother, for example, the father has to be called to school and to the nursery and to give his opinion about things.
Diane: He’s still involved with the child.
Inga: Yes. I think it’s a very good thing. It can, in some cases, mean great conflicts, and then of course the court has to be involved. But that’s the exception.
Robert: How successful do you feel Swedish family policies have been in ensuring that children get adequate parental care in their early years?
Inga: I think that most Swedish parents take very great interest in their children. They may not have so much time because they both work, but the time outside work is spent to a very great extent with the children. Researchers say – and you can see this without being a researcher – that the parents, because of the rather limited time they have to spend with their children, want them to have a nice time – to the extent that they have difficulty disciplining them.
Robert: In the United States there is growing concern about the abuse of children, and a large percentage of those who are in poverty are children. What is the situation like in Sweden in terms of both child abuse and poverty for children?
Inga: It’s not comparable to the United States. Of course there are differences between families, but the social authorities have been very alert as far as economic help is concerned. And of course there is such a thing as child abuse in Sweden, but I think that it’s primarily among parents who are mentally ill or gravely disturbed. We have a system of "well-baby clinics" where about 99% of all parents go, and there are visiting nurses, so small children are not hidden away.
Some parents are not quite capable of understanding their children or giving them what they need. The different authorities usually know about it – but it can be very difficult to come into the family and help.
Robert: Are there programs to help new parents become effective parents?
Inga: Yes. Even in pregnancy almost 100% of couples and pregnant women go to special clinics, and there they also have parent education groups. When the child is born, they continue going to the well-baby clinics, and you can attend these parent education groups on paid work time until the child is ten years old. The money comes from the social security system.
Diane: Are there home births? Do you have mid-wives?
Inga: There are very few home births, but there are mid-wives in the hospitals, and they have the central position in the birth, not the doctors. It’s not an illness to give birth. In most cases there’s not a doctor involved in the delivery at all, unless there are complications. Most Swedish women now don’t want any drugs, instruments and so on, but they have the security of being at the hospital.
Robert: Are there programs to assist young families to get adequate housing?
Inga: Yes, that’s rather complicated. The whole system of housing is very heavily subsidized by the state, so the standard of housing is one of the highest. Most people in Sweden live in flats [apartments], although in the country or outside the major cities there are big areas of one-family houses. And even if you have a rather big flat you pay no more than forty percent of your income in rent. The more children you have the more subsidies you get, so you get housing of the need, not of the wallet. That’s a source of great discussion between different political parties.
Robert: Has providing these services and subsidies led to an increase in the Swedish birth rate?
Inga: Yes. Ten years ago our current Prime Minister was in charge of researching these questions and he wrote a book called "Why No Children in Sweden?" There was great concern about the low birth rate. But in the last three or four years it has gone up, and now it’s the highest in Western Europe. It’s rather complicated to understand all the reasons for it. One is that now most Swedish women are almost thirty when they have their first child. So it could be that those women who were twenty-two or twenty-three ten years ago waited, and there has been an accumulation effect.
Robert: There have been similar shifts in the United States. It’s as if it’s part of the success of the women’s movement and women gaining success in the workplace – women are belatedly making sure that they also have a family life.
Inga: Yes. Thirty or forty years ago women had to choose family or career, and now they have both.
Robert: Do you have any sense of why it has been politically possible in Sweden to provide support for children and young families? What is it that makes Sweden different in that way?
Inga: There are historical traditions and, I think, a rather direct consensus about many things, and there has been a Social Democratic government since the 1940s. At the same time that Roosevelt’s New Deal came along in the U.S., the same kinds of policies and outlook of responsibility came in and stayed here. Of course there’s an opposition, and it was a revolution in 1976 when the Social Democratic government lost in the election. But the new government had to be more Social Democratic than the Social Democrats.
Robert: Just as in the United States it’s been the Republicans who have made the biggest changes in relationships with both China and the Soviet Union.
Inga: Yes. But what’s perhaps the negative side of it is that there are not so many free choices of schooling. They are not bad schools, but they are all similar. There are not so many thrilling experiments, not so many private initiatives, since even the day nurseries are supported by the state.
Diane: Is there much home-schooling?
Inga: I think that’s almost non-existent. In that case the parents are very original and special and are not at all confident in the schooling system – and that’s very unusual. But it’s in the law that you can do it; they’re not "children of the state."
Robert: What other drawbacks do you see to Swedish family policies?
Inga: I am personally in favor of the security and responsibility of Swedish family policy, but I think if you interviewed other people they would stress that there ought to be more pluralism. With day care, for example, there are some groups of people who think you ought to get the economic support, but be able to choose between different options – what you might call a voucher system.
Robert: But there continues to be broad support for some kind of financial support for families?
Inga: Yes. And one could choose to support families with small children even more, and perhaps that will happen.