The Appeal of Nordic Freedom

Health care, child care, elder care, and education: who deserves them? Imagine having these services without being dependent on your family or employer. Consider, if you will, how that lack of dependency might improve touchy family relationships. Consider how access to those services might bring out the entrepreneurial spirit within you enabling you to conjure up a life as a self-employed writer, artist, house painter, landscaper, tour guide, or some other path that fires up your spirit. Finnish born writer Anu Partanen, now an American citizen, thinks that Americans might want to contemplate the freedom that a strong set of social supports can buy.

Partanen moved to Manhattan when she and her American husband decided that it made more sense for the two writers to live in the US than Finland. She had a lot to learn, however, about how our “freedom” to pay exorbitant amounts for childcare, schools, health insurance, and senior housing options often prolonged our dependency on our parents or employers, or, in the case of seniors, on children. She also came to appreciate the stress level of people trying to secure services offered by a plethora of public and private agencies with their various inconsistent rules about who qualifies for which program.

One program that’s a given in all Nordic countries is generous paid parental leave. The amount of leave varies a bit from country to country, but both moms and dads get to spend a lot of time with their tiny tots. When Partanen learned how many parents here have limited or non-existent parental leave, and how challenging it is to find quality pre-schools, she was shocked. But she was also motivated to try to help Americans understand that parental leave and universal pre-school are not part of a socialist conspiracy.

The result of her efforts is her book entitled The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. Partanen challenges the notion that universal social support programs are socialist and thus incompatible with capitalism. She assures her audience that each of the Nordic countries has a market based economy in which people choose their employment and companies pursue profits as they do elsewhere. The difference is that people are not locked into a job to access health care; new parents have paid parental leave; quality pre-schools at reasonable cost are in every neighborhood; education is yours for the taking; and seniors have housing and care options without becoming dependent on their children. Surely people have greater freedom under these circumstances, and families can thrive when adult relationships are not tinged by dependency.

Why aren’t Americans more open to programs common to the Nordic countries? Could our unresolved racism be partly to blame? I’ve often read that the concept of the undeserving poor pervades our thinking about social welfare programs such as universal health care, paid parental leave, education, and elder care. People who don’t have much are critical of those who have less but enjoy better benefits, especially if they aren’t working. This has been cited as one reason Obamacare receives so much criticism. People who benefit from the law are critical because someone else benefits more.

If race were not so closely linked to class in our society, that might be a sufficient explanation for some of our woes. The thing is, many poor people have darker skin. Are resentments due to class or race? My personal sense (based on family history) is that racial differences elicit disgust in situations where class might not. A ten year old student of mine once said, “Black people are ick.” If this thought underlies any of your thinking, it’s clear that one way to undermine universal benefits is to associate them with icky people. I was once hopeful that we were overcoming our history of racist vendettas, but the past ten years have altered my thinking.

While reading The Nordic Theory of Everything, I also read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, and White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. The History of White People chronicles the continual disputes over who qualifies as white and who doesn’t, essential for Europeans who wanted to separate the best from the rest. Are Irish white? Jews? Italians? Hungarians? Poor people? People debated this out of their conviction that the best people are white, hence the importance of sorting this out. I was fascinated by the lack of any reference to people other than Europeans. Obviously people of color just aren’t worth debating. Homogeneity of populations is often credited with Nordic people being comfortable with social programs that benefit everyone. Perhaps, but Partanen credits other elements of their history with acceptance, especially the need to reestablish their societies after two World Wars left everyone in need of a helping hand.

The optimism of The Nordic Theory suffered a total collapse for me in the pages of White Rage. Time and again, white people, especially in America, have inflicted harm on themselves in order to keep black people in check. White families have sacrificed hard-earned money to escape integrated neighborhoods and schools. We’ve taxed ourselves to impose lengthy prison sentences on black men while letting white men off the hook for similar crimes. We’re willing to forego universal health care in order to keep people we look down on from sharing access that would benefit everyone. We’ve heaped scorn on our first bi-racial president and prevented bipartisan solutions to immigration issues because of our loathing of people with darker skin. Am I wrong? Please, convince me.

Ms. Partanen acknowledges that we are unlikely to see progress on universal social programs at the national level, but she’s optimistic that states and cities can enact elements of the Nordic bundle of programs. As programs such as universal pre-school, or paid parental leave gain acceptance, perhaps we’ll inch further along the continuum toward the full range of programs Nordic citizens enjoy. Once we begin to appreciate the freedom these programs bring, we might be motivated to continue our progress.

Are you optimistic? Can we set aside our deeply engrained racism and scorn for “undeserving” poor people long enough to dip our toes into Nordic waters? I don’t share her optimism, but I do think it’s possible that our younger generations might yet rescue us from our self-inflicted wounds.

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