The Best Place to Live?

FinlandThis week The Atlantic published an intriguing article on the quality of life in Finland as compared to the United States. The article begins by noting that

[Finland] has cheaper medical care, smarter children, happier moms, better working conditions, less-anxious unemployed people, and lower student loan rates

than the United States. It later adds that Finland

has a lower infant mortality ratebetter school scores, and a far lower poverty rate than the United States; that it’s the second-happiest country on earth (the U.S. doesn’t break the top 10).

The author, whose cousin’s family lives in Finland, discusses a number of social benefits found in Finland that Americans simply do not have. She notes, for example,

My cousin’s husband gets 36 vacation days per year, not including holidays. If he wants, he can leave his job for a brief hiatus and come back to a guaranteed position months later.

Admittedly, Finland has one of the highest rates of guaranteed paid vacation leave in the world. According to other sources, only Austria comes in higher at 42 paid days of leave each year.

Paid vacation

By comparison, there is no federal law mandating paid vacation time for American workers; it is left up to the individual employer’s discretion. In the United States, one in four workers receives no paid time off at all.

American students can only envy students living in Finland. The author of the Atlantic article states,

Tuition at his daughter’s university is free, though she took out a small loan for living expenses. Its interest rate is 1 percent.

By comparison, in America the student loan rate increased to 6.8% as of July 1. The average American student has debts totaling more than $27,000, and total student debt nationally is now more than $1 trillion. Under this burden, delinquency in repaying student loans has increased 70% in the last eight years. Clearly, young people in Finland have advantages in beginning their careers that American students can only dream of.

Finnish students also receive excellent preparation for attending university. Finland’s school system is said to rank as

one of the world’s best – with no standardized testing or South Asian-style “cramming” but with lots of customization in the classroom.

What about state child support? The author reports that her cousins

had another kid six years ago, and though they both work, they’ll collect 100 euros a month from the government until the day she turns 17.

Oh yes, and then there are Finland’s famous “baby boxes” which are

a sort of baby shower the Finnish government throws every mom. A package sent to expecting women contains all the essentials for newborns – everything from diapers to a tiny sleeping bag.

The Finnish government also provides four months of paid maternity leave for new mothers, and the mother and father can share an additional six-month “parental” leave with pay on top of that. These generous maternity benefits are exceeded only by Norway and Canada, which provide 44 weeks and 50 weeks of paid maternity leave respectively.

Maternity leave

By comparison, The United States is the only member of the OECD that does not require employers to provide paid maternity leave. It is one of only four countries in the entire world that does not have official paid leave for parents. The other countries are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea – not very distinguished company.

There’s more:

Can’t get a job? Not to worry. Unemployment insurance in Finland lasts for 500 days, after which you can collect a means-tested Labor Market Subsidy for an essentially indefinite period of time.

What about state assistance for immigrants who want to work in the country? The author states,

My cousin is a recent immigrant, and while she was learning the language and training for jobs, the state gave her 700 euros a month to live on.

Let’s not even get started on the sorry state of immigration policy in the United States. As for federal support of immigrants? – forget it.

And then there is health care.

Health care costs

The United States spends more as a percentage of GDP on health care than any other country in the world. It costs each person an average of $8,000 per year, with the government throwing in an additional $4,000 per person. Finland, like many other countries, provides universal health care to all of its residents at a greatly reduced cost. And it provides additional benefits as well.

In addition to dirt-cheap universal healthcare, Finland offers compensation for wages you might have lost while you were away from work, as well as a “Special Care Allowance” if you need to take some time off to take care of your sick kids.

Women Leaders and Putting People First

While American politicians are steadily cutting back on the social safety net and denouncing the evils of the “welfare state,” this is not the case in Finland. The author reports that

Finland’s welfare system was hardwired into its economic development strategy, and it hasn’t been seriously challenged by any major political group since.

The reason may have something to do with Finland’s unique history. As the article reports,

The country focused on beefing up child and maternal care in large part because women were at the core of Finland’s independence and nation-building efforts at the turn of the 20th century. Finnish women were the second in the world to get the vote in 1906, and they were heavily represented in the country’s first parliament.

That is still the case today. Only Rwanda and Sweden have a higher proportion of women in government than Finland, while the United States is way down the list, falling between the United Arab Emirates and North Korea.

Women in government

The article goes on to cite Ellen Marakowitz, a lecturer at Columbia University studying Finland, who argues that

because women helped form modern Finland, things like maternity leave and child benefits naturally shaped its welfare structure decades later.

Finland also has a strong trade union history.

Finland’s strong trade unions pioneered its initial worker protections but the state soon took those functions over. Today, roughly 75 to 80 percent of Finns are union members (it’s about 11 percent in the U.S.) and the groups dictate the salaries and working conditions for large swaths of the population.

As Andrew Nestingen, a professor heading the Finnish studies program at the University of Washington, explains, “If people are happy, they’ll maximize their work ethic.” That allows society as a whole to reach its full potential. The theory of the welfare state is that “everyone should get a slice of the cake so that they have what they need.” Giving people these resources enables them to make a better life for themselves and effectively contribute to society.

And in the case of Finland it seems to have worked. Overall, people are happier and less stressed out than in America, and they have a more optimistic attitude. As Linda Cook, a political scientist at Brown University who has studied European welfare states observes,

people in Finland are more secure and less anxious than Americans because there is a threshold below which they won’t fall. Even if they face unemployment or illness, Finns will have some payments from the state, public health care and education.

Any chance Americans could learn from Finland’s example?

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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