The state of marriage in Sweden's welfare state

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Sweden, as most of the world knows, is a classic example of the welfare state. To the visitor, it is (to borrow a phrase from Ernest Hemingway) a clean, well-lighted place. To its citizens, it's a nation where high levels of taxation provide cradle-to-grave benefits that cover housing, employment, health insurance, pensions, education, day-care, and much more. Less widely recognized, however, are two other facts about Sweden. It has the lowest marriage rate, and the highest rate of non-marital cohabitation, of any nation in the industrial world.

Given Sweden's long tradition of permissiveness on questions of pre-marital sex, that's not surprising. What is surprising - and potentially disruptive to the entire fabric of the welfare state - is another fact just now beginning to surface: that Sweden appears to have the highest rate of family breakup in the Western world.

That's the conclusion reached by David Popenoe, a Rutgers University sociologist who has spent years studying the Swedish family. In an article scheduled for publication next month in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, he notes that while Swedes have labored to remove all legal distinctions between married and cohabiting couples - so that, for example, children born to unmarried parents have the same legal footing as the children of married couples - they have yet to address themselves to the sometimes obscure and often agonizing problem of family dissolution.

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In fact, he notes, it's a problem that Swedes don't even like to talk about. In a nation famous for convening commissions to study every conceivable social problem, this issue has never been the subject of a major governmental investigation. Yet there it is, staring the welfare state in the face.

Why so little discussion? Part of the reason, of course, is that the breakup rate for unmarried couples is devilishly hard to chart. Divorce, by contrast, involves the measurable and legal dissolution of a legally formed union. But measuring the unrecorded breakups of never-formalized unions is another story. According to Dr. Popenoe, unmarried couples now make up perhaps 25 percent of all Swedish couples (up from an estimated one percent in 1960), with the number rising steeply among the lower age cohorts. He also notes that 45 percent of the births in 1984 were to unmarried mothers.

Wrapping all this together with the results of a recent survey of 4,300 Swedish women, Popenoe estimates that the dissolution rate for unmarried couples with one child is three times that of married couples. Combine that with the divorce rate (the second highest in the Western world, lagging behind only the United States), and, he says, it is ``reasonable to put forth the ... proposition'' that Sweden leads the Western world in family dissolution.

Popenoe admits that more data need to be collected on the subject before firm conclusions can be drawn. But look, for a moment, at the implications of his study. What troubles him is that, as he says, ``a society so resolutely devoted to social welfare and the good life should have achieved such a position.'' What are the ramifications of this position?

There are those who try to argue, of course, that Sweden is even now preserving the ``good life''; and that marriage, which is not a necessary to the ``good life,'' is instead an outdated, useless custom deserving the ``deinstitutionalization'' it is now experiencing. As it happens, that sad and narrow line of reasoning is irrelevant. The issue here is not marriage but family - however the family may have been formed.

And is the family irrelevant to the ``good life''? Few Swedes, it seems, would agree to that. They still seem eager to form households and have children - suggesting that, like the rest of the world, they hold the institution of family in high regard.

Then what's happening in Sweden? Is the challenge of family dissolution - which, for the children of married and unmarried couples alike, carries some heavy emotional burdens - the price that must be paid for the advanced welfare state? Is welfare statism, providing so much of what families once had to provide for themselves, rendering the family obsolete and making family stability harder instead of easier? Have the best-intentioned governmental programs wrought unseen havoc in the most valued of human institutions? If so, is this an unforeseen side effect that can be corrected - or the logical and inevitable consequence of the welfare state?

As the rest of the industrial world moves in varying degrees down the paths of social welfare, these are vital questions. That they are only now coming to light is, in a way, horrifying. But that even the Swedes are showing a willingness to face them - as evidenced by the fact that Popenoe's article has been excerpted by the official Swedish Information Service - is a good sign.

The more clarity here, the better for us all.

A Monday column

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