Day care in Sweden: the debate runs deep. The emergence of private centers jolts the welfare state

``Harri, what are you building?'' Eva Husbom asks. Five-year-old Harri picks up his pieces of Lego and answers, ``A spaceship.''

``Where will you go?''

``To the moon - and to see Grandpa.''

This may sound like normal child talk, but it reflects a profound, passionate debate. In Sweden, the state has traditionally owned and run all day-care centers. Last year, Ms. Husbom challenged that public monopoly and opened her Pysslingen Day Care Center here in Nacka, a suburb of Stockholm.

The battle over Pysslingen reached far beyond the simple issue of day-care centers. It posed the fundamental question ``What limits should be placed on Sweden's vaunted welfare state?''

Swedes used to assume that their government could provide them with ever more protection, from free baby care to large retirement pensions. Now, like other West Europeans, many consider this idea outdated.

``My generation doesn't want Big Brother deciding everything we do,'' says 33-year-old Eva. ``Our government cares too much. It's so bad that they regulate television and tell us when to shut it off and go to bed.''

Even Sweden's ruling left-wing Social Democrats accept that public spending cannot keep on growing indefinitely. It has already been cut from 67 percent of gross national product in 1982 to 64 percent last year. That still represents the largest percentage of any industrial economy, and the Social Democrats concede that any further expansion of social services must result from more economic growth and greater competition in providing the services.

Correspondingly, many Social Democrats want to reduce the tax burden. Swedes pay the highest personal taxes in the industrialized world - up to 80 percent of income. Because these high levels swell the underground economy and squelch incentives to work harder for more pay, the government proposed a sweeping overhaul earlier this year, which would lower income tax rates, reduce tax avoidance, and broaden the tax base.

``All of us are aware that our resources are limited,'' explained Bengt Lindqvist, deputy minister of health and social affairs, in an interview (see accompanying article). ``We don't want to reduce social expenditures. We just want to use them more efficiently.''

But how?

No one in Sweden considers a Reaganite solution. Everybody, including conservatives such as Husbom, agree that social services should not be cut. They simply want to make the social system more efficient by encouraging private initiative.

``We don't want Sweden to become like in the US, where many people are left without social insurance,'' Beng Westerberg, leader of the Liberal Party, said in an interview. ``But we want to give the people freedom of choice between private and public services.''

Social Democrat minister Lindqvist disagrees. While he suggests that private garbage collection would be permissible, he rules out privatizing health, education, or child care. In the name of equality, he says, government should provide these ``human'' services.

``We must prevent profit interests from determining the type of care our children receive,'' he argues. ``We don't want to give young business managers the power to discuss services for our children like producing cheese or cars.''

This argument over private and public services exploded over Pysslingen. Back in 1984, Husbom and some friends from the Electrolux household appliance company decided that the booming demand for proper day care could be met only by the private sector.

In the middle of the 1960s, only 30 percent of Swedish mothers with preschool children held a job. Today, the figure is 88 percent, and mothers have to wait two to three years to obtain a day-care spot for their children. To eliminate the queues, parliament has voted to spend 5 billion kronor (a little more than 800 million dollars) through 1991 to build new centers.

Husbom and her Electrolux friends figured that a private company could earn significant amounts by providing day care. A university-trained day-care professional herself, Husbom believed that private firms could provide better day-care services at a lower cost than the government. Instead of hiring a cook, she and her fellow teachers would do the cooking. Instead of hiring a cleaner, she and the children would do the cleaning.

``The goal isn't just to save money,'' she says. ``I think it's good for the children to cook and clean with us.''

Her thinking provoked a wave of protest.

Former prime minister Olof Palme derided her ideas as a way of producing ``Kentucky Fried Children.'' Her ties to giant Electrolux, which produces vacuum cleaners, were mocked. ``Do you want your children cleaning up for Electrolux?'' asked angry Social Democrats.

``Pysslingen became a symbol about the debate over welfare politics and freedom of choice,'' says Mats Svegfors, an editor at the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet. ``It cut to the heart of the Social Democratic vision of the welfare state.''

Behind the Social Democrat slogans, minister Lindqvist says there were serious concerns. In neighboring Norway, private day-care centers long have been legal and provide 45 percent of all day care.

``Norway created a segregated system,'' Lindqvist complains. ``All the wealthy children are in the private day centers, while the public centers are full of immigrant, handicapped, and disturbed children.''

These arguments infuriate Husbom and pro-Pysslengen politicians such as Mr. Westerberg. They say continued public financing of day care would ensure equal treatment. Since public funds would pay set fees for all children, poor children could just as easily choose to go to private day-care centers as rich children. ``The price for private and public day centers would be the same,'' says Westerberg. ``Let the parents decide which they want.''

In the end, the Pysslingen battle ended in a compromise. Husbom was allowed to open her day-care center, but only after she dropped her connection to Electrolux and agreed to form a nonprofit association. Nacka city authorities built Husbom's day-care center. They pay the teachers' salaries and Husbom takes children from the public queue. Any money left over from the state subsidy must be reinvested in the center.

Even so, Pysslingen differs from public day-care centers. In the public centers, the staff is composed both of university-trained professional teachers and high school graduates. Husbom decided to hire fewer staff, but to make sure that all of them were university graduates. And as she promised, her children clean and cook for themselves.

The public apparently likes the results. In a recent poll published by the Stockhom daily Dagens Nyheter, 70 percent said that private companies should have the right to provide day-care services. Only 22 percent said no.

But how deep is this support?

Polls taken during the 1985 election campaign also showed strong support for opposition ideas about privatizing social services. When the time came to vote, the electors returned the Social Democrats to power. Many opposition politicians fear a repeat of this scenario in next year's elections.

``Swedes say they want change, but they want security even more,'' argues Lindqvist. ``At the last minute, they get scared and turn to the Social Democrats.''

This urge for security does not frighten Eva Husbom. By 1991, she hopes to have opened 50 day-care centers, and eventually to make them completely private. In the meantime, she and four-year-old Johan are setting the table for lunch.

``How many are sitting at your table?'' she asks.

``Nina is here. Danny is away. Harri is here,'' Johan answers. Soon the table is set for six people.

``We need more Pysslingens,'' Husbom concludes. ``We must take a little more responsibility for ourselves.''

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