The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
By Anu Partanen
419 pages, $27.99
By Peter Simon
In her native Finland, Anu Partanen was accustomed to citizens having nearly free health insurance, up to a year’s paid sick leave with job security, free college education, four to five weeks of paid summer vacation and generous paid parental leave after the birth of a child.
Then she moved to New York to join her husband-to-be, and learned of people unable to pay astronomical medical bills, having their homes foreclosed, scrambling to pay child care or working three low-paying jobs and still not making ends meet.
“I was lost in a wilderness,” she writes. “And in the American wilderness, you’re on your own.”
This book – based on prior studies, extensive interviews, but mostly on Partanen’s own personal experiences and observations – is by no means a tirade against the American social system.
In fact, Partanen, a newspaper and magazine writer and editor, proudly became an U.S. citizen in 2013. She admires America’s can-do,dynamic, free-wheeling spirit and its energy, creativity and diversity.
But she’s afraid that income inequality, a shrinking middle class and fears for the future are causing America to lose its soul.
“It seems that all around me, Americans were becoming more unsettled, more unhappy, and increasingly prone to asking what was wrong with their lives and their society,” she writes. “In the self-portrait that America paints, society is perceived as fair and just, and a failure to make it on your own is shameful. But in reality the cards are stacked against the poor and the middle class.”
She feels Americans would benefit greatly from many of the policies adopted in Finland.
Universal health care is provided by the government, an arrangement Partanen fully appreciated only after being in the U.S. long enough to lose her coverage.
“It’s hard to exaggerate how fundamentally the loss of health insurance destroyed my sense of personal security and well-being,” she said. “In most other modern industrialized societies, including Finland, health care is considered a basic human right.”
Parental leave in Finland, by American standards, is off the chart.
New parents receive ten months of paid leave for each child, with assurances that they can then return to their jobs. Or when those ten months are up, a parent can extend the leave and receive a small home care allowance from Finland’s social security system until the child turns 3. Inexpensive, high-quality day care is available when parents are back to work.
“In the Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark Sweden, Norway and Iceland), one parent is expected to stay home for the first year or so of a child’s life” Partanen writes. “The time and energy that you spend on your kids can be focused mainly on loving them, being with them and raising them, not working so hard to afford them that you never get to see them.”
Children are welcomed to the world in that spirit, as their families are sent a box – which can be converted into a crib – and which contains clothing, bedding, a baby toothbrush, a chew toy and a picture book.
University students pay no tuition and receive about $600 per month for living expenses. The yearly college cost is roughly $110, which pays for membership in the student association.
In the lower grades, Finland’s highly regarded schools are moving in a different direction than the U.S. system, with a de-emphasis on standardized testing and greater efforts to foster self-reliant, organized children. While American schools focus intently on reading and math, Finland is adding lessons in arts, crafts and civics, and all students – both boys and girls – study carpentry, sewing and cooking.
While many Americans dismiss the Finnish system as a “bogeyman welfare state,” Partanen said, that characterization ignores the vast amounts the United States spends on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, public assistance, food stamps and – in a less overt way – tax credits, mostly for the wealthy.
“For middle-class people, the amount of disposable income you end up with in the United States versus in a Nordic country can be very similar in the end, or even turn out to be a better deal in a Nordic country,” she writes.
Partanen urges Americans to be less fearful of “big government” and more insistent on “efficient government” that addresses citizens’ most pressing needs.
“At some point Americans forgot that it’s not enough to talk about equal opportunity, democracy and freedom,” she said. “These things need to be protected and supported by concrete actions – something that Americans of recent decades have failed to do.”
Peter Simon is a former News veteran education reporter.