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Family policy framing the Nordic welfare state

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“I think we often under-estimate the importance of family policies in other areas of the welfare state.” Professor Guðný Björk Eydal from the University of Iceland, who has just visited SFI, explains how family policies such as paid parental leave are a key element in the Nordic welfare states.

One of the big questions in social policy in general is where the responsibility of the individual and the family ends and the responsibility of the state begins. In the Nordic countries, extensive family policies focus on the rights of each individual family member and this has significant consequences for the responsibility of state. As Professor Guðný Björk Eydal from the University of Iceland says:

“Nordic legislators were very early in making family law equal for both men and women. Husband and wife should have same rights and same obligations. This of course also defined the role of the state. Family law has had more to do with the shaping of the whole welfare system, than we really have realized. When you individualize family law and decide that you only have to provide for your children and your spouse, not your parents or the rest of your family, then someone else has to take on what earlier was considered to be a family obligation”.

Nordic collaboration on policies

The Icelandic professor of social work has been at SFI for six weeks to collaborate on two book projects with SFI senior researchers Tine Rostgaard and Mai Heide Ottosen. Both projects are part of the big Reassess Centre of Excellence – a Nordic centre aimed at reassessing the Nordic welfare model by investigating whether the model has the ability to renew itself under changing conditions.

Professor Eydal explains that some of the similarities in Nordic family policies are the result of close collaboration between the countries through the Nordic Council of Ministers:

“For instance we have the Council of Ministers for Gender Equality in which the five Nordic ministers meet and make action plans on how to increase gender equality. It is then up to the national parliaments to find ways to legislate and make solutions. There are no sanctions, but it is a kind of joint declaration of willingness; of where we want to go. I think we often forget how strong this Nordic corporation is,” she points out.

Professor Eydal also mentions Nordic Statistics where statistics on social affairs, on health etc. are collected as part of the Nordic collaboration.

Child care

Child care is one of the key components in Nordic family policy. Almost all Nordic children attend some sort of daycare and there is a firm belief that the children benefit from being in daycare. Extended use of daycare also gives both parents the possibility to have jobs and be active in the labour market.

All Nordic countries have a system of paid parental leave, which makes it possible for parents to stay at home and take care of their newborn children. Some of the countries also offer parents benefits after paid parental leave, home care allowances or cash for care. But the systems are not all the same, Professor Eydal explains:

“From outside we may look alike, but there are differences. In Finland they have a home care allowance system, where parents can get paid for staying at home with their children. It is very popular to take advantage of this after paid parental leave, so in comparison to the other Nordic countries, fewer Finnish children go to daycare before they are three-years old. In Denmark children start day care when they are one-year old or even younger.”

Parental leave for fathers

Gender equality is also a big issue in the Nordic countries. One way to enforce gender equality is by designating a specific part of the paid parental leave to each gender. In Iceland three of the nine months of paid parental leave are earmarked to the father, three months are designated to the mother, and three months are shared between the two. This has profound effect on family dynamics, the Professor says:

“This system works really well in Iceland. Fathers are using their entitlement to paid leave, and this has proven to increase their participation in the care of their children – not only during the paid parental leave but also further on. I do not think we have yet realized the radical changes in fatherhood that this law has brought about. Think about children growing up in families where both parents participate in the caring. What kind of mothers and fathers will they be?”The equally shared parental leave law in Iceland was passed 11 years ago and the new generation is already convinced that fathers on parental leave is the way things should be:

“I recently told a couple of young kids that years ago fathers did not have paid parental leave, and they just started laughing! It was totally unthinkable to them. I think we often underestimate the importance of family policies in other areas of the welfare state: work life, society, how men care. We will probably see more men in the care sector in the years to come, etc. It should never be underestimated how policies frame individual lives,” says Professor Eydal.

The Professor is working with a team of scholars on a book on Nordic Family Policy edited by SFI senior researcher Mai Heide Ottosen and Professor Emeritus Ulla Björnberg. Professor Eydal is also editing a book on Nordic fathers together with SFI senior researcher Tine Rostgaard. Both books are part of the Reassess-project.

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