OK, I admit it. I have a bad case of Sweden envy. You should have one, too—even if you are not a fellow working parent.
Raising a child and holding down a job is always hard. But in other developed countries, particularly those of Northern Europe and Western Europe, working parents have it much easier. The Swedes get up to 16 months of paid leave after the birth of a newborn, extra tax credits to defray the cost of child-rearing, plus access to regulated, subsidized day care facilities that stay open from 6:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night. The Danes and French benefit from similar arrangements. These programs are available to everybody, regardless of income, and the vast majority of working parents take advantage of them.
Here in the U.S., most of us can only dream of such programs. And it’s probably going to stay that way for a while. Local and state governments have introduced some initiatives of their own, but it’s taking a lot of time and confined to limited parts of the country. On Monday, the White House is co-hosting a meeting of academics, advocates, and business leaders to talk about work and family. (I happen to be moderating a panel there.) But while the president has proposed some ambitious initiatives, chief among them a universal pre-kindergarten program, nobody expects action on them anytime soon. Americans might like the idea of more family-friendly policies, but this Congress isn’t about to give it to them, particularly with the Republicans controlling one house. As Hillary Clinton conceded in a televised town hall last week, “I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.”
The issue here isn’t just partisanship. The Europeans pay much higher taxes than we do—in Scandinavia, for example, the tax burden approaches or even exceeds 50 percent of national income. Governments across the ocean also have more control over business, particularly when it comes to the treatment of employees. This doesn’t seem to faze the European public. “We don’t mind paying high taxes as we and our children benefit,” one Stockholm parent told researchers a few years ago, expressing the prevailing sentiment. “We would not want to live a country where taxes may be lower but the benefits are less and you don’t get to spend time with your children when they are young.” You don’t hear such argument in the U.S. The prevailing assumptions (even among some liberals, I’m sure) is that the taxes and regulation to support such generous work-family policies would spoil the business environment and cripple the economy—creating a gentler society, perhaps, but also a less prosperous one.