Parents and the state
Childcare in the Nordic countries
The two-income family has become the dominant family form in Western welfare states, and has caused rethinking of the relationship between the welfare state and parents with young children.
Parenthood has become ‘politicised’, involving renegotiations of boundaries between the public and the private. While family change over the past decades has created common challenges across countries, the pace and shape of policy responses have varied substantially.
The Scandinavian welfare states pioneered the transformation of parenthood into political issues. The employment of women – including mothers of young children – was gaining ground early, from the 1960s–1970s. Economic conditions pulled women into the labour market: the demand for women’s labour power in the expanding service sector, especially the expansion of local welfare services.
When Scandinavian mothers entered the labour market in great numbers, adequate state support was not yet established. However, what distinguishes these welfare states is the extent to which the state gradually adjusted policies according to women’s changing needs, with social democratic governments was a vital force. Still, the political processes were not straightforward. The current Nordic family policy packages have been generated through policy debate and reform over several decades.
The dual earner – dual carer model
In Scandinavia, politicisation of parenthood and gender equality have been closely linked. An earner-carer model has distinguished family policy developments: mothers and fathers are expected to be both workers and carers. Accordingly, mothers’ labour force participation and caring fatherhood are encouraged by the redistribution of childcare – from family to society, and from mother to father in the family.
The pace of reform has differed between the countries, but today the main policy elements include about one year of paid parental leave, with relatively high replacement rates and quotas reserved for fathers (except for Denmark), and universal publicly subsidised childcare services, including parents’ right to a place for their child and maximum parent fees.
Universal childcare services
Early initiatives, in the 1960s–1970s, aiming at universal subsidised institutionally based childcare, were contested as they challenged the boundary between state and family responsibility.
The development was based on a social pedagogical tradition – childhood is perceived as a life stage with its own value, and care, play and learning are seen in relation to each other. Kindergartens cover all children under five, thus there is no division between care for children under three and preschool for children three and older, as in many other European countries. However, childcare as an investment in human capital and in children’s early development has gained more prominence over time.
Through a gradual interplay of increasing supply and demand over the past 30-40 years, the kindergarten today is a key social institution in the Nordic countries: Almost all children attend kindergartens, 97 percent of children 3–5 years old (Figure). Even more striking is the high coverage among children under three – between 80 and 90 percent in Denmark, Iceland and Norway. The somewhat lower share in this age group in Sweden is due to the country’s longer parental leave (16 months). However, the much lower share among Finnish children – in both age groups – has a different explanation: The country’s cash for childcare benefit. Parents with children under the age of three that are not using public childcare get a monthly benefit, and around 50 percent of all eligible children receive the benefit. The allowance structure encourages families also to care for their older children at home.
In addition to Finland, also Sweden and Norway during the 1990s introduced cash for childcare benefits that parents could choose instead of childcare services. In this decade, parental choice gained political momentum, promoted by the political centre-right, opposed by the political left. In Finland, parents’ ‘choice’ was absorbed into the national family policy discourse, and upheld norms about homebased care as the best for the youngest children. However, Sweden abolished the cash for childcare benefit in 2016, and while the benefit still exists in Norway, it is mainly used by parents who have to wait to get a place in childcare services after the end of parental leave. Parents prefer kindergartens.
Changing institutions – changing norms
Family policies create feedback effects on the society from which they have arisen. Welfare state intervention in gender and family arrangements has been more widely accepted and even expected in social democratic Scandinavia than in liberal and conservative states. Succeeding cohorts of Nordic parents had been socialised into policy regimes of increasing supply of childcare services, over time raising expectations about access and normalising the use of institutional care for young children.