A Society without Poverty - the Norwegian Experience

Article excerpt

Yes, there is another way.

I went to Norway to teach American methods of alcoholism treatment and to learn of life in a welfare state. My stay of almost two years informed me in the way that firsthand experience informs--rudely, indelibly. My family and I have experienced the Norwegian community--the schools, social services, the health care system. And I have come to see how each dimension is connected to every other dimension of the cultural whole. In the high quality of life in Norway is the key to the larger pattern.

To the American visitor, the lack of poverty is striking, even puzzling. The outsider is inclined to see what is in terms of what is not: the southerner noting, for instance, the complete absence of palm trees. The Norwegian, meanwhile, is aware neither of the lack of poverty nor the absence of palm trees.

To understand the lack of poverty, you have to first understand poverty. And I am speaking of poverty in a rich society, there being no need to explain poverty in the absence of resources. The sociologists of the 1960s conceived of the existence of poverty in a prosperous society as functional for the total community. What were the social functions of poverty? (For a literature review, see Blau, 1988.) Poverty or the threat of poverty provided a steady pool of compliant workers; poverty provided jobs for bureaucrats who were to ameliorate the poverty; the poverty of some provided for a natural division of classes. The existence of poverty in America is consistent with teachings of the Protestant ethic and the survival-of-the-fittest mentality.

Whereas Americans think individually, Norwegians tend to think collectively. Whereas Americans value competition, Norwegians value cooperation. The thesis of this article is that poverty persists in the United States because our values say it will persist. It does not persist in Norway because the society chooses not to tolerate it. This article examines the general economic conditions in Norway and views them against the Norwegian cultural context--values of egalitarianism and the collective will, trust in the social system, and above all a tradition of kindness to the weaker members of society. Implications for the United States and for American social workers are drawn.

Norwegian Economy

Norway is a socialist country in terms of social policy but a capitalist nation in terms of the ownership of business. Because of Norwegian control of North Sea oil industries, a great deal of wealth is available to the nation. This fact helps compensate for the poor agricultural conditions--rocky, mountainous land and a short growing season.

Personal income taxes in Norway are among the highest in the world. The higher the income, the higher the percentage of taxes paid. The value-added tax is a sales tax of 20 percent on virtually all items sold. Consequently, food and services are extremely expensive in Norway.

Income differences across occupational groups are relatively slight. Virtually no group of employees earns more than twice the average earnings of all employees (Selbyg, 1987). The equalization of income is a reality in Norway.

Poverty

Official estimates put the percentage of people living in poverty at 16.0 percent in the United States and 4.8 percent in Norway (Zimbalist, 1988). In fact, these figures were based on relative income in each country. My personal impression is that the gap between poverty in the United States and Norway is much higher than the numbers indicate. Even in my work with alcoholics, I did not come across one truly impoverished person. When an individual gets into economic trouble, the state provides help. Statistics on poverty thus do not portray the reality in a cradle-to-grave, highly protective society.

Kohlert's (1989) description of the universalism philosophy in welfare is pertinent to Norway. Universalism views those in need as no different from other people. …