Academic journal article Family Relations

Social Welfare Spending on Family Benefits in the United States and Sweden: A Comparative Study*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Social Welfare Spending on Family Benefits in the United States and Sweden: A Comparative Study*

Article excerpt

Although the economic and social conditions of families have changed considerably, the framework of U.S. social policy with regard to families has not changed. Under the framework, policymakers assume that the poverty of families or individuals is largely their own fault. This long-standing belief has impeded the expansion of public spending on behalf of families. I compare public policy on family benefits in the United States and Sweden. The analysis indicates that the United States spends only a fraction of what Sweden spends on family benefits. I also describe the allocation of funds to specific family benefits programs in the two countries and discuss the policy directions that the United States may take in the future.

Key Words: child, family policy, poverty, single parents, social welfare expenditures.

(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 301-309)

The United States, along with Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom, has maintained the legacy of a small welfare state (Kamerman & Kahn, 1997). This U.S. legacy is associated with the notion of small government, personal responsibility, and faith in the marketplace to solve social and economic problems and impedes the expansion of publicly funded social welfare programs beyond the expansion of income-tested antipoverty programs (Danziger, Danziger, & Sterm, 1997).

The industrial structure, families, and the role of women in the labor market have changed considerably. In the face of such changes, the U.S. Congress introduced several programs targeting families, such as the child tax credit, the dependent care tax credit, the tax credit for college expenses, and unpaid family leave. Yet, the United States has not developed a coherent family policy, nor is it spending enough to improve the economic conditions of American families (Cornia, 1997).

Thus, it seems important to discuss the U.S. family policy (or the lack of one) in comparison to Sweden, the leader in the development of the welfare state. Sweden is an appropriate country for comparison because its public social welfare expenditures for family benefits are the highest among the 30 countries associated with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and because it is one of the few countries known to have an explicit, comprehensive family policy.

Here I first discuss the nature of Sweden's family policy and that of the United States. Second, I review the literature on the adverse impact of small-scale public spending for social welfare programs for American families and their children. Third, I present the results of an empirical study that quantifies the scope of social welfare expenditures on family benefits in the United States and Sweden and describe the pattern of allocation of public spending on each program that provides family benefits in each country. Last, I discuss policy implications.

Family Policy in Sweden and the United States

The Swedish and U.S. policies on families differ both philosophically and programmatically. Winkler (2001) and Danziger and associates (1997) argued that U.S. social policy was developed on the assumption that the poor economic conditions of female-headed families are due to their own failings and that female-headed families are a deviant family form. Implicitly, if all women with children are married and live in a two-parent family, the economic problems surrounding female-headed families would disappear. Because of the public's refusal to see structural causes of economic problems, the social policy interventions, if any, are designed only to take care of families on the fringes.

U.S. social policy has not been concerned with broader issues other than antipoverty strategies (Danziger et al., 1997). For example, the policy on families gives no consideration to the imperfection of systems (e.g., the U.S. economic system) that do not provide adequate wages and benefits to low-wage earners, and the terms of their employment do not accommodate the conflict between worker and parent roles. …

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