Monday, August 2, 2010

An argument for emigration?

My Scandinavian friends and relatives have a hard time understanding why so many highly educated American women opt out of the work force to stay home with young children. When they learn that maternity leave in this country keeps a new mom's job secure for a measly three months, they usually ask two questions: Why don't American women demand better? And where are the dads in all of this?

My response hasn't changed much over the years. In my opinion, American parents of both sexes have bought a bill of goods, and now we're stuck with it.

True, our Scandi counterparts pay higher taxes (Sweden being the highest with taxes accounting for 47% of GDP; here it's 27%.), but look what they get in return. Over a year of paid parental leave (it went gender blind in 1995 and now most dads take at least two months); three years of job security (i.e. optional two year unpaid leave); a guaranteed pre school spot for any child 12 months or older (and it cannot cost more than $150 a month); a network of walk in health centers; a monthly child allowance to defray the costs of clothing and feeding the bundle of joy. I could keep going but you get the idea.

And no, they're not going bankrupt doing this. Family benefits cost 3.1 per cent of GDP. The Swedish national deficit, according to The New York Times, accounts for 2.1 per cent of GDP, which means Sweden is in better fiscal shape than most of the developed world. Almost a hundred per cent of moms rejoin the workforce within three years. Divorce rates are the lowest in Europe, and sociologists attribute that in large part to shared parental leaves.

Because parental leaves are almost universally taken, businesses have adapted to long term absences, just like they've had to adapt to a mandate that parents may leave at 4:30 to collect schoolchildren. Indeed,generous parental benefits have spurred a revolution in flex time and telecommuting that's light years of anything we have here. Smart employers sweeten the deal by adding their own stipends to the government-paid leave. They use it as a recruiting tool in a job market where more and more young applicants value work-life balance over maximum paycheck. And why shouldn't they? It's not like Scandinavian graduates enter the job market saddled with student debt, nor do they need to marry a job to secure high quality health care, but those are subjects for another day.

I don't hold out a lot of hope that the parental leave situation in the good old U.S.A. will improve anytime soon. Need evidence? The only thing more depressing than Sharon Meers' self-indulgent piece in The Washington Post last Friday, suggesting public policy might change if more dads spent weekends with their offspring, was the chain of comments that ensued. Let's just say there's a really ugly side to the rugged individualism that's entrenched in the American national ethos. Boiled down version: if it's not my kid, it's not my problem. So much for the proverbial village.

Why do I find Ms. Meers' commentary self-indulgent? Because she seems incapable of looking at the issue from the perspective of a woman who HAS TO WORK. I'm all for choice for I-bankers, but let's be honest: anyone with that income has more options than the average meat processing plant employee, janitor, supermarket cashier or unionized laborer. Ms. Meers could stay home for a few years, then re-invent herself; your average American worker cannot.

But you see, that's part of the giant bill of goods we've bought. Ms. Meers, like those in the top two per cent of earners in the United States, lives far better than the typical Scandinavian citizen. What the not-my-kid, not-my-problem crowd fails to grasp is that the AVERAGE Scandinavian enjoys a far superior standard of living than does the AVERAGE American.

This is not my opinion. It's a fact.

I challenge anyone to prove otherwise.

Similarly, I think it's a fact that until we as a nation accept that we're failing our families, in the name of greed and (arguably false) self reliance, nothing will really change.

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