Why Sweden Works Best. A Comparative Research on Some European Countries´ Welfare States as seen from Below
Sociology CNRS, France Strasbourg, France
A comparative European research project on the concrete workings of Welfare States has brought some interesting findings. The core focus of this project - "BETWIXT" - was on how families with children living in deprived areas of large European cities were coping and had coped with difficult conditions of life. We chose seven cities (Lisbon, Torino, Toulouse, London, Dublin, Helsinki, Umea° in Sweden); in each we picked up one of the most deprived areas and made a monograph of it. Then we selected twenty-seven families living there and collected their case histories. All belonged to the manual working class and shared similar characteristics: disability of the father, or his unemployment, his absence (single-mother families), or immigrant status. Such features universally made everyday life difficult and threatened the actual becoming (devenir) of children, which were the main focus of parents' efforts in the long run. But similar handicapping characteristics led to highly contrasted outcomes: in Scandinavian-Nordic cities (Umea and Helsinki) and in Toulouse, families could rely on nationwide Welfare systems of public insurance - financed by all citizens through taxes, or by all working people through Social Security contributions - and on reasonably generous public assistance ("Welfare" properly said). In other cities (especially Dublin and Lisbon, but also Torino and London) solidarities tended to be restricted to extended kinship and perhaps neighbours, which was very often not enough to avoid pitfalls. Comparison clearly showed that, contrarily to ultraliberal false beliefs and propaganda, "the market" (that is, paid work) was not always providing the solution (because e.g. systemic discriminations on labour markets or the cost of private day-care centres); and Welfare benefits did not make people more passive but more active, as they felt (e g in Sweden) that their efforts would be eventually rewarded. As for "Family", supposedly the locus of solidarity in Southern Europe, either it was too poor to help or it appeared often to be the problem (as with alcoholic fathers, or stigma on single mothers). Nation-wide well-organised systems of solidarity such as the Swedish one stood out as providing by far the best arrangements.