Why the unmarried and childless are singing the welfare state blues.
- By Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer
Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is assistant managing editor for online at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor's degree from U.C. Berkeley, and master's degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
From afar, the Nordic countries look like the promised land — except for the long winters, of course. Bestowed with wealth, good schools, universal health care, and long life spans, it’s no wonder that Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden regularly top lists of the "world’s happiest countries."
But life in the herring collective may not be all that it seems — not if you’re young and single, anyway. New research from sociologists Hiroshi Ono and Kristen Schultz Lee argues that the picture of glowing Scandinavian satisfaction obscures a more nuanced reality: a set of subtle trade-offs in these welfare states that favor families over the single and childless. The Nordic model, the authors argue, not only redistributes wealth — it also redistributes happiness.
The study’s authors looked at 2002 data from 29 countries, collected by the International Social Survey Program, in which respondents reported their demographic characteristics as well as their levels of happiness. Unsurprisingly, the happiness gap between rich and poor is smaller in countries that spend heavily on welfare programs. But Ono and Lee also found that the happiness gap between married and unmarried people is larger in countries with high public-welfare spending. Being single in, say, Sweden is more of a downer; while women with children, in particular, see a significant happiness boost. The authors argue that this is because states spend lavishly on pro-family policies like generous parental leave and subsidized, high-quality day care, while single people (who also pay high taxes) receive the least in return.
It could be that states with pro-family policies might have extra-strong societal attachments to the idea of family. So those people who haven’t yet formed families of their own could be unhappy for reasons other than paying taxes through the nose. Yet the research is a reminder that it’s worth digging a little deeper into a country’s aggregate happiness. With every policy, there are winners and losers — even in a welfare state nirvana.