Monday, June 14, 2010

Sweden: What a pro-family society looks like

This week the NYTimes ran a long article about parental, specifically paternal, leave laws in Sweden, and the effects these laws have had on society in the last decade. To many American readers, Sweden will sound almost alien:
The ponytailed center-right finance minister calls himself a feminist, ads for cleaning products rarely feature women as homemakers, and preschools vet books for gender stereotypes in animal characters. For nearly four decades, governments of all political hues have legislated to give women equal rights at work — and men equal rights at home...
“Many men no longer want to be identified just by their jobs,” said Bengt Westerberg, who long opposed quotas but as deputy prime minister phased in a first month of paternity leave in 1995. “Many women now expect their husbands to take at least some time off with the children.”
We're not talking about taking two weeks off here - the vast majority of men in Sweden take their full two months, and many also split some of the combined parental leave (thirteen months between parents) to stay home longer. Can you even imagine this happening in the US? How much would a policy like this change our culture (for the better)?
Many Americans would describe Sweden as "Socialist!!" (a big, bad, scary word these days), and they'd be right. But Swedish policies are also much more pro-family than those of the more free-market Capitalist US. At least if we consider parents spending time with their children to be pro-family (I do!). For all of the political rhetoric around our "traditional family values," US society does not really have a commitment to strengthening the family. Right-wing groups may stand strong against gay marriage and abortions, but where are the rallies for family leave, subsidized childcare, and living wages? The top three results in a Google Search of "Pro Family Advocacy" are homophobic organizations protesting gay marriage. Do Americans just not get it?

I could totally get on board with a pro-family group, if they espoused truly pro-family principles. Where I would start:
  1. Ensure that all parents have access to the resources to provide more than adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and education to their children.
  2. Support working parents (fathers and mothers) with paid parental leave, flexible work arrangements, and heavily subsidized childcare.
  3. Provide support for families affected by sickness or disability, with caregiver leave, access and subsidies for needed services (healthcare, transportation, education, etc.).
Commenters, what is missing here? (Note: state-enforced heterosexual marriage deliberately left off list, as well as criminal penalties for abortion and funding for abstinence-only education. Not my definition of pro-family.) What about breastfeeding? Should parents be able to bring children to work?

For those looking to read more on family advocacy in the US, the following sites are useful:


  1. This is a great post! I think that some of the opponents of paid leave in the U.S. will argue that it will result in gender discrimination in the workplace (lower wages, less employment for women). This is a real "economist" take on this - b/c economists like to look at general equilibrium effects and think about how other agents in the market will respond to a policy change (here, perhaps firms will decide that it's too expensive to hire women). Having spent the last year researching maternity leave in the U.S., I can fairly confidently say that there's no evidence that this would be the case. There are no conclusive studies that show that women's employment or wages are lowered because of maternity leave policies. Instead, it seems that the current FMLA UNPAID policy only benefits the children of highly-educated and married women, i.e. those who can afford to take the leave. Not only does this increase the disparities in health outcomes for children from different socio-economic statuses right from birth, it's also not very cost-effective. There's evidence that infant mortality rates for babies with various serious conditions decline with maternity leave, suggesting that maternal care and time at home are important for keeping seriously ill children alive during their first few months of life. If the children from poorer, less-educated families with single mothers could benefit from this as well, many more infant lives would be saved. Paid leave is the way to go - U.S. needs to catch up to the rest of the world!!

  2. Great add to the previous comment, something I found interesting from the NYT article is how the more men took parental leave, the more the wage gap between men and women seemed to decrease. I'm not at all familiar with the literature on maternity leave, but it seems a compelling argument that whatever penalties women do pay for motherhood (perceived lower productivity, or whatever) would decrease if men were also seen as PARENTS in the workforce, lowering those perceived differences between the sexes. After reading the article I became a proponent of paternal leave...I think both children and women (as well as men!) would benefit, in both a developmental and economic sense.

  3. My husband is from Norway, which has just as good, if not better, family policies as Sweden. And I'll tell you what's different. He was raised in a society which constantly told him that his neighbor is important, that a high quality of life for all citizens is also a priority for all citizens. Here in the US, we're taught that we're unique little snowflakes who only need to be responsible for ourselves. It's a "you can do it" vs a "we can do it" mentality and it plays out in everything from maternity/paternity leave to socialized health care, to living wages for all members of society.


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