Single Mothers in Sweden: Work and Welfare in the Welfare State

By Rosenthal, Marguerite G. | Social Work, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Single Mothers in Sweden: Work and Welfare in the Welfare State


Rosenthal, Marguerite G., Social Work


Welfare reform is once again on the U.S. agenda. Calls to "end welfare as we know it" echo from the White House and many statehouses as well. Like earlier attempts, new efforts are aimed at moving single mothers to self-sufficiency through job training, incentives for employment, and temporary help with medical coverage and child care for welfare recipients entering the work force. Increasingly, however, the calls for change include punitive measures: compelling mothers who cannot find work to participate in workfare programs, curtailing benefits to families when recipient mothers have additional children, and setting time limits for the receipt of public assistance. As before, current reform measures are based on the following interpretation of welfare dependency: Recipients do not work because they have insufficient preparation or skills for work, lack adequate social skills, have inappropriate attitudes to acquire a job, or are simply too used to receiving public assistance and prefer receiving it to working.

The most recent federal attempt at moving recipients into the work force, the Family Support Act of 1988, was ironically formulated on the eve of a massive economic recession. The act, which governs the states' implementation of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, placed the burden for recipients' unemployment on personal deficiencies rather than on structural ones. Through provisions for mandatory education and training, the legislation aimed to reduce the welfare rolls and poverty by putting welfare mothers to work (Hagen, 1992; Hagen & Lurie, 1992; Nichols-Casebolt & McClure, 1989). The Clinton administration's attention to welfare reform takes place even as it acknowledges chronic unemployment flowing from profound structural changes in the economy. Yet, as evidenced in the president's 1994 State of the Union address, the connection between economic dislocation and welfare dependency--in contrast to dependency on unemployment insurance--is absent. In public rhetoric, at least, the problem is seen to be the chronic dependency and deficiency of the welfare recipient.

When the focus of reform is, instead, on the question of eliminating poverty rather than reforming welfare recipients, another issue arises: whether the problems of the very poor are better addressed by targeting social expenditures on the most needy versus instituting universal programs as more appropriate and more politically viable (Skocpol, 1990).

The American approach to single motherhood, work, and welfare stands in stark contrast to that of most other industrialized countries. A growing body of literature points to the economic vulnerability of single-parent families because of the limited income a single earner can produce, the low wages that many working women earn, and the adequacy or inadequacy of income transfer programs. In making comparisons the literature also finds that American single-parent families have remarkably higher and more persistent poverty rates than do those in other industrialized countries, largely because the benefit structure for single mothers in the United States is very low (Goldberg & Kremen, 1990; McFate, 1991; Smeeding, Torrey, & Rein, 1988; Zopf, 1989).

This article examines the situation of single mothers and their families in Sweden, the country acknowledged to be the most advanced welfare state. Through this examination, the author hopes to contribute to the American discussion of how best to meet the needs of such families and to illuminate the complexities of welfare reform.

Sweden's Approach to Social Welfare

Among the industrialized countries, Sweden consistently stands out as the country where poverty appears to have been most successfully reduced (Duncan et al., 1991; Goldberg & Kremen, 1990; Kahn & Kamerman, 1983; Kamerman & Kahn, 1988; McFate, 1991; Sidel, 1986; Smeeding et al., 1988). Sweden has often been examined by comparative social policy analysts as the society where commitments to the general welfare of the population have been kept. …

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