Why can Swedes take on so much college debt?

College in Sweden is free. But rent isn’t. And food isn’t. Neither is the beer that fuels the relatively infrequent, yet legendary, binges in which some Swedes partake.

via College in Sweden is free but students still have a ton of debt. How can that be? – Quartz.

I write often for Quartz so was a bit chagrined to find that this basic element of Swedish life – the huge level of student debt – was noteworthy.  It’s just part of life here.  The article is interesting because it also gets into why northern Europeans are willing to take on so much debt to get out of the house early, in comparison with southern Europeans.

It’s also interesting to ponder that student debt in Sweden is not considered the crushing burden it is in the US, even though it’s a lifetime thing.  Maybe it’s because the rest of the safety net makes it possible to live with the debt without fear of crashing into a dark hole.  Just a thought.


dreaming of bread, roses and joe hill in the stockholm subway

When we moved to Sweden three years ago, I stared every morning at a quote etched in the floor at the Näckrösen subway stop.  It was by Joe Hill, who I knew nothing about, but it was beautiful.  In English it goes something like this, “Give us not only bread, but roses too.”

It summed up everything I liked about Sweden, about the welfare state, about the reasons we more or less fled the New York City exurbs for a land of paid parental leave and universal healthcare.  I’ve meant to write about that quote for three years.  And yesterday I finally did at The Faster Times, where I am the news and politics editor and write the Big News column.

Here is the lede:

“Ninety-five years ago last week, the government of Utah murdered Joe Hill, lining him up and shooting him for a murder he might or might not have committed.

Hill was a labor activist and song writer, an immigrant with a checkered past, a fighter willing to dedicate his life to a cause – the kind of man the American left does not produce anymore, or if it does, the kind of man the American left ignores.

This is important with the rise of the passionate Tea Party and with the lack of a counterweight to the organized American right, with a president who wants to get things done, but seems to need to be led by the people, not to lead them.

Hill was born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, which happens to be my wife’s hometown.  His birthplace there is a museum, with a twisted tortured statue outside.  I visited the house years ago on a frigid February day, wracked with the flu on a failed travel book tryout.  The museum was closed, so I did not read then about the hard knock misery of 19th century Sweden, the kind of poverty that drove a quarter of the country to the United States.

But a Swedish February day was not a bad time to go – it helped me understand in a more visceral way why a man like Hill would wander into the American desert, fleeing all the darkness and illness that still drop like a veil over the country in the winter … with the world class safety net still decades away …”

You can finish the story here.

voting in the swedish elections, where everyone is to the left

I wrote a post for Currents Online this week pondering my options as a first time Swedish voter.  This is relevant to Daddyland when you realize that almost every single Swedish political party is to the left of the Democrats in the US.  Or to reverse it, almost every American politician would qualify as “far right” here in Sweden.

So there are no threats to Daddyland, to the welfare state, to the safety net.  There are big differences in how each party wants to balance the safety net versus opportunity, jobs, etc.   And if the Social Democrats return to power, they are likely to vastly increase the number of “daddy only” parental leave days, forcing more men to stay home longer, a pure case of social engineering that I both support and feel queasy about.  The current center-right government is more in favor of things like the “equality bonus” that couples get for splitting their leave.

But consider that.  The right wing government put in an equality bonus!

Here is a quote from my post:

In less than two weeks, I will vote in a Swedish election for the first time. I am not a citizen, so I am not eligible for the national election, but I do get to vote in the local and county-level contests.

The Swedish campaign season is nothing like an American one.  For one, there are way more posters – big, full color posters stapled everywhere. But also, you get so much actual information.  The parties print manifestos, they write op-eds, and there is a seemingly endless series of substantive TV appearances, all focused on real issues that affect real Swedes.

It makes one long for American flash and pop, for nasty attack ads.  Or not.

In fact my new voting rights have focused my mind on both Swedish politics and the vast gulf between the American and Swedish political worlds.

It can be tricky.  The parties have similar labels as American ones.  There are the four parties in the governing coalition on the “right” – the Moderate Party, the Center Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats.  And then you have three parties on the “left” – the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party.

But do not be fooled.  The Social Democrats are not like the American Democratic Party.  And the Moderates are not like the Republicans.

On Sweden.se you can find short party descriptions.  Try guessing which party this describes:

‘The XXXX Party today describes its politics as “green liberalism” and also attracts urban voters. Core issues for the party are entrepreneurialism, jobs, care for the environment and the climate. The party is pro-immigration and stands for openness and diversity.’

Sounds like a left-wing Democrat to me.  Must be the former communists, right?  But, nope, it’s the description of the Center Party, which happens to be in the current center-right coalition.

Finish reading it here.

parental leave keeping the birth rate up in a recession?

The United States and Sweden have two of the highest birth rates in the developed world, even though they are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of parental leave.

Sweden has got the world-best safety net, making it easier for couples to afford kids without one parent destroying his or her career.  The U.S. – with one of the worst safety nets – has social flexibility.  It is easier in America to jump in and out of the job market, to work from home, and so on.  The parent doing so harms their career and lowers the family income but apparently not enough to stop women from having babies.

Until now.

A Pew study released earlier this month shows a decline in the U.S. birth rate and ties it directly to the recession (as well as other factors).

The analysis suggests that the falloff in fertility coincides with deteriorating economic conditions. There is a strong association between the magnitude of fertility change in 2008 across states and key economic indicators including changes in per capita income, housing prices and share of the working-age population that is employed across states.

The nation’s birth rate grew each year from 2003 to 2007, and has declined since then. As will be shown later in this report, the number of births also peaked in 2007 to a record level, dipped nearly 2% in 2008 and continued to decline in 2009, according to National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data.

Meanwhile, the headline of my newspaper here in Stockholm last week?


Birth rates haven’t been this high in Stockholm since the late 1960s … despite the recession.

Chalk one up for the safety net.

the darkness of a socialism addiction

I defended “socialism” – meaning the Swedish welfare state – pretty strongly the other day.  And I meant it, though in a point-making blog entry for the Huffington Post, perhaps one leaves out the occasional subtlety.

Such as, you know the problems that conservatives have with the welfare state?  That it saps initiative, kills drive, breeds a society of people dependent on big brother?

Well, that can be, ummm, exactly right.

The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported today that threats against employees of the social service agency, Försäkringskassan, are growing rapidly, from 53 in 2003 to 250 in 2008 and with 181 already in 2009.

“Threat” in this case means either a threat of violence against staff or threatening to commit suicide if benefits are cut.  Most of the incidents come after someone is told they will no longer get money for being on sick leave.

Now, the issue of longterm sick leave and the amount of people on it is a huge issue in Sweden.  The government is trying to cut it down, which probably explains some of the pressure.  I won’t go there right now.

For me, it is how the people deal with the pressure.  The government is cutting them off, fairly or not, and what do they do?  They fall apart.

You can’t blame them, really.  Swedes expect to be taken care of.  For most, this does not become debilitating.  The society remains productive.

But, obviously, more and more people are unable to make it on their own.

circling the stroller parking lot

This picture more or less sums up the daily difference between my life in Sweden and my former life in the New York exurbs.


This is the stroller parking lot at our local children’s clinic.

Here are the differences.

1. We have a local children’s clinic, which we go to for free, and where BT got only one shot for about five vaccines, where in Port Jervis, NK got five shots for the same vaccines.  Less shots are good.

2.  The clinic has a parking area for strollers.

3.  The parking area is full of real, honest-to-god strollers, not a travel system to be seen.

In Orange County, New York, we had two pediatricians.  The first was walkable but he had no room for our stroller (people thought we were either adorable or freaks) and no toys.  The second had a fine waiting room but the offices were essentially in a medical strip mall, accessible only by car, conveniently located at the intersection of two major highways.

I like my current life better.

housewives as exotic TV novelties

They are running a series in Dagens Nyheter on the funny shows that run overnight.  You know, the kind of random shows that no one really watches but fill space, maybe old reruns of Paradise Island or documentaries on pavement ants.

Or, in Sweden, Canadian housewives.

Channel 4+ runs “The Mom Show,” at 4:35 on Monday mornings.  This is apparently a show hosted by two moms, interspersing personal anectdotes with segments for moms, seemingly the stay at home kind.  There are doctors and nannies who give advice.  The hosts are cheery and pro-Mom and praise their husbands for helping out.

Sounds run of the mill to me.  But in the Dagens Nyheter review, the writer thought that a show so dedicated to women and to motherhood was “fascinating” and a little “funny” (this is not a great translation of “rolight”).  The headline essentially says “For chic housewives”

For in Sweden, the housewife is basically nonexistant.  There are many benefits to the broad sweep of the safety net.  All parents get a chance to stay  home with their babies.  All children get their parents for the first 15 to 24 months.

But then it is off to daycare, which is generally of a high quality.  And there are long vacations and parental leave stretched for two month summers off.  But it does not go further.  For it is really really hard to make it on one salary in Sweden, what with the taxes to support the safety net.  And, beyond that, the culture has shifted away from stay at home parents.

So much so that Canadian housewives seem as exotic as tribes in the Amazon or in a forgotten corner of Mongolia.