The same amount of Swedes live in poverty – 6,7 percent – whether in Sweden or the U.S., writes David Brooks, a thoughtful conservative columnist in the New York Times. He suggests in his May 4th op-ed piece The Limits of Policy that ethinc groups social and economic outcome is not so much a result of different political systems as similarities in attitudes and social mores.
“Roughly a century ago, many Swedes immigrated to America. They’ve done very well here. Only about 6.7 percent of Swedish-Americans live in poverty. Also a century ago, many Swedes decided to remain in Sweden. They’ve done well there, too. When two economists calculated Swedish poverty rates according to the American standard, they found that 6.7 percent of the Swedes in Sweden were living in poverty.
In other words, you had two groups with similar historical backgrounds living in entirely different political systems, and the poverty outcomes were the same.
A similar pattern applies to health care. In 1950, Swedes lived an average of 2.6 years longer than Americans. Over the next half-century, Sweden and the U.S. diverged politically. Sweden built a large welfare state with a national health service, while the U.S. did not. The result? There was basically no change in the life expectancy gap. Swedes now live 2.7 years longer.”
Brook’s point is “not to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.”
This rings true, but why separate out politics and policy, which are also part of the ethnic mentality that immigrants bring with them, especially when they move en masse and settle in the same areas, like many Swedes did in Minnesota for example. The result was a state that became known in the U.S. for its welfare state, and later pushed a welfare reform that combined relatively generous social welfare programs with a push to move recipients from welfare to work. Almost sounds like Sweden, where the generous welfare program has also gone through reforms stressing the need to get receipients back to work. The low level of poverty among Swedes in Sweden and the U.S. may therefore say more about the Swedish mentality, than about differences in the political system between Sweden and the U.S.
Or what do you think, dear reader? Feel free to expand on this discussion.