Women (and Men) Can Have It All…In Sweden

Before I embarked on my travel and study in Europe as an American Marshall Memorial Fellow, I re-read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s controversial cover story “Why Women Can’t Have It All” from the July 2012 issue of the Atlantic.  Slaughter—Professor of Political and International Affairs at Princeton University, former Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, and Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs—shared her thoughts on the current challenges facing working mothers and parents.  While Slaughter acknowledges the substantial progress women have made since her mother’s (and grandmother’s) generations, she concludes that “we must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our [family] choices.”

I believe Sweden has done just that.

The cornerstone of Sweden’s progressive social contract is its parental leave policy.  Many European countries have paid policies that are far more generous than the non-existent policy of the United States, but Sweden’s policy goes even further.  In Sweden, paid leave is just the beginning of a solid foundation for mothers (and fathers) to balance work and parenthood.  For each child, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid leave (ranging from 80-90% of one’s full salary).  The days can be split among both parents, and can be used up until the child is eight years of age.  During our MMF trip, we met with a member of the Swedish parliament.  She shared that her husband decided to work a shortened work week when their son was age six to be able to spend more time with him before he entered formal school.

Such a luxury is almost impossible in the United States.

Beginning at age one, quality pre-school and day care opportunities are available to Swedish citizens.  While there is a cost, it is greatly offset by the per child government stipend received by parents.  This is compared to the cost of child care in the United States, which averages $972 per month, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.  According to the Skolverket, the National Agency for Education in Sweden, the aims of early childcare are both to support children’s development and learning, and to enable parents to combine parenthood with employment or studies.  More than 80% of all Swedish children are enrolled in pre-school or daycare.  This allows Swedish parents to continue pursuing their careers and studies.

The result: in Sweden, parents do not fear being penalized for leaving the workplace while their children are young.  They can leave with confidence, know that they can re-enter the workforce at a later date.

One of the many challenges faced by parents in the United States is that our current school day, created during a predominantly agrarian era does not match with today’s work day.  This leaves working parents with a gap to fill each afternoon.  In Sweden, however, social services do not end after infanthood.  Once a child enters school, lunch is provided to each student regardless of socio-economic status, and after-school care is provided by leisure-time centers.   Sweden has a low cost system in place to assist.  In a meeting with Anna Ljungdell, the mayor of Nynäshamm, a small town utside of Stockholm, she shared with us MMFs that there was no way she would have been able to have her career without these systems in place.

In short, the citizens of Sweden believe they have the right to child care, education, and the ability to have a career.  While I believe most Americans would passionately argue they have the same rights, our current system does not demonstrate these values.  I agree with Slaughter:  Americans must change our social and workplace policies to reflect a real commitment to families.

Mary Barr, Executive Director of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, is a Fall 2012 Marshall Memorial Fellow.

  • Stefan

    As a Swedish parent I found your post interesting. I just wanted to clarify one thing: the cost of childcare in Sweden is not really offset by the stipend (around $150 per child and month). Instead the real cost of daycare is close to $2,000 per child and month PLUS the cost that you refer to. The $2,000 is paid by the local government, but they of course get their money from taxes paid by parents like myself. And taxes on the Swedish level requires both parents to work in almost all families, so you could just as easily view our system as a way to force parents to send their kids off to institutions in order to make ends meet. The end result is stressed-out parents and equally stressed-out kids, and no options available for parents who might want to stay at home during the most formative years of their kids life. You have to pay the taxes whether or not you’re using the daycare system, so choosing some other kind of solution would require you to pay twice.

  • http://www.barnensratt.se/ Bo C Pettersson

    A very good comment, Stefan! You are taking the words out of my mouth!
    It is frustrating, time & again, to read stuff like Mary Barr’s, indicating that the writer does not realise that when the government bullhorns out: “Vote for us and we will give you ‘this or that benefit’ in return”, it amounts to gross con-tricking that would be punishable by our courts, had it been committed by a private individual or a company in the private sector.
    But our political sector is immune to fraud charges but the likes of Barr do not see that or care.
    You put Barr right on one point of detail. Now, I would like to put her right on another: No Swedish small-child parent gets 90 per cent of her previous income for 480 days but ‘only’ 80% thereof & that for 390 days ‘only’! For the rest of the parental leave time she gets approx. $26 a day, i.e. approx $770 a month, the amount a mother would get who by design or chance starts her adult life by having her children at that early time.
    Consequently, the Swedish government supports two different mothers with two totally different sums of money depending how they plan out their work/life balance. How equitable is that?
    Finally, Stefan, there is an association of private citizens, called Childrens’ Right to Their Parents Sweden which is critical of what the members call ‘the Swedish daycare coersion’. By the looks of it, you should join that crowd!

  • Stefan

    Thanks Bo! I almost completely agree with what your organization is trying to accomplish; the idea of forcing parents to send their very young children off to an institution that parents have no control over (and often can’t even choose, since there is only one, government-run, childcare provider within reasonable distance from home) is truly horrible.

    But, as I’m sure you are acutely aware of, you’re up against a formidable adversary: the government Treasury. Forcing both parents back to work generates a lot of taxes that would otherwise not be collected, and that is apparently more important than the well-being of parents and their offspring. The fact that more women than men would stay home does also make this a politically sensitive issue. And that, too, is apparently more important than the kids.

    It’s really sad to see this system touted as something good…

  • http://www.barnensratt.se/ Bo C Pettersson

    Appreciated Stefan,
    Of course we are aware of what’s stacked up against us, but, like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes discovered, it’s hard to keep quiet when all you are trying to do is to communicate a simple, plain-to-see, truth: that Sweden’s current taxation and public-spending policies, aimed at getting as many mothers with small children as possible out into the paid workforce, is not macro-economically profitable.
    I.e., those efforts do not contribute to higher affluence or a higher level of employment!
    Why this is so can be shown in many ways, of which this one might be the easiest to take in.

  • Stefan

    You do indeed make a compelling argument; if the government would refrain from taxing people into submission I imagine that very few would elect to spend $2,300 on child care each month. And I also believe that the monthly cost would go down appreciatively, probably to somewhere around the U.S. levels. And then it might actually be worth it!

    But that’s sort of beside the point, what really annoys me is that the welfare of the kids seems to be of no concern to the policy makers. What matters is instead that as many taxable hours as possible are created. And what really amazes me is that these policy makers keep getting re-elected, when all they really do is to move money and thus power away from parents and into the systems that they control.

    It should be self-evident that lower taxes would lead to greater personal freedom, allowing parents to work less and spend more time with their kids while still making ends meet.

    I can only surmise that these voters trust the policy makers more than they trust themselves, and that they prefer that other people raise their kids so that they won’t have to. And that’s completely flummoxing…

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.

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