Changing Sweden takes a hard look at its `model' welfare state. Some are disillusioned, some grateful, others want overhaul
Stockholm — The Rosengrens are what the Swedish welfare state, which provides a virtual cradle-to-the-grave safety net, is all about. Each morning, sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m., Mikael and Ann-Chatrine Rosengren leave their vast housing complex built by the government back in the 1960s and drop off their children at the state day-care center.
They are no different from all the other couples in Sweden who must work in order to pay for the welfare state, which exacts the world's highest per capita tax burden - about 50 percent of everyone's pay packet.
For many Swedes, this is too high a price to pay for a system that, its critics claim, is not working either as effectively as it should or as it once did.
Too big. Too costly. Too intrusive. And too impersonal. These are the sorts of complaints being voiced about what is often cited as the world's model welfare state.
To a Western ambassador with many years service in Sweden, ``the welfare state has run out of steam.'' He notes a growing disillusionment within the country. Part of this is unhappiness with the high level of taxes. Another problem is that the traditional method of amicably settling wage claims and disputes between employers and employees has soured and resulted in labor disputes.
One sharp reminder of this was the recent public-sector strike. No area of employment has increased as rapidly in recent years as the public sector, which now accounts for 6 out of every 10 jobs in Sweden. How to pay for that expansion is a major concern.
Health-care costs, for instance, which include national health insurance covering medical and dental treatment and hospital visits, are now the equivalent in cost of 10 percent of the gross domestic product. They amounted to only about 3 percent in 1960.
Yet the Rosengrens have no quarrel with the welfare state. If anything, they feel that many young people are not sufficiently grateful.
``They have it so good, but they don't know where it came from. It's been dropped on them. They don't have to learn how it was earned,'' Mikael says.
For their taxes, the Rosengrens get more than full-time day care for their children. Each of them is assured five weeks of fully paid vacation. If Mikael (who is a metal worker with a computer manufacturer) or Ann (who works at the post office) fall ill at work or are injured on the job, they will get health benefits amounting to 90 percent of their salaries. If either loses his job, the state will retrain them without expense and try to find them alternative employment.
If Ann-Chatrine becomes pregnant, the family income is not severely reduced. Under the parental insurance system, childbirth entitles them to 12 months' leave of absence between them, including nine months where they would receive 90 percent of their salary, and three months at a lower rate.
While Mikael Rosengren may feel he has the best of both worlds, the same cannot be said for Per Unckel, secretary-general of the nonsocialist Moderate Party. He feels the welfare state is in serious need of an overhaul - starting with the day-care centers.
He is incensed that after paying his taxes and his day-care enrollment fees, his four-year-old son, Nils, attends first one day-care center and then, for two hours, must be go to a second one. The first day-care center is running out of money and can't keep Nils for the entire day.
``We are paying for a system, but we don't get enough for the money we pay. The simple answer is to give all parents the right, through lower taxes, to decide what system they would like to use,'' Mr. Unckel says. So far, only state-run day-care centers are allowed to operate.
Talk of radically reforming the welfare system makes some Swedes nervous. Many do not wish to contemplate the alternatives.
A British teacher who now lives in Sweden concedes that ``it can be dangerous for one's state of mind to get everything and have nothing to struggle for.'' But he believes that the Swedish welfare state's advantages far outweigh its drawbacks. ``The welfare state buffers the bad things and distributes the good things,'' he says.
As a teacher, he's also an admirer of Swedish education. ``The fact that you get the same education eliminates class and that's very healthy.''
Another Briton, a successful businessman who has made many trips to Sweden, is troubled by trends he says he's seen emerging in Sweden over the years.
In his view, ``incentive, intuitiveness, and deep thinking have been stifled. You don't find many people who want to talk about life. The average person wants to live for today and `don't bother me about tomorrow.' Socialism has given everything to everyone.''
To the visitor, Sweden does seem a place of middle-class abundance. But Jan-Erik Wikstr"om, a member of parliament and former education and culture minister, suggests that some Swedes have doubts about this materialism. He says that while a good life and social progress is available, he also notes that ``young people come to you and they have a feeling there's an emptiness in their lives.'' He defined it as ``spiritual poverty.''
To Nordal Akerman, author of some 30 books on the welfare state, the complexity of society has made people feel alienated from the state. At the same time, he doubts that the state can provide all the answers. ``My quarrel with the Social Democrats is that they are super-rationalists. They believe all problems are inherently solvable. The state can't solve all problems and shouldn't try to, because some should be left to the individual.''