Lessons from the Nordic Model of Government and Social Welfare

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Eighteen students from Wheelock College, Simmons College, and Cambridge College embarked on a two-week study tour of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway on Saturday May 17, 2014, led by Irwin Nesoff, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Policy at Wheelock. Prof. Nesoff’s course, titled “Comparative Social and Government Policies: The Nordic and American Models,” focused on social welfare services and policies and models of citizen participation that have developed in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

The Nordic model of comprehensive, publicly funded health care and social services, available at low cost to all residents, ranks among the most successful in the world. During this travel-learn-study tour, students experienced first-hand how Scandinavian citizens and officials view their system of social welfare and public policy, learned how these systems are organized, and saw how they work on multiple levels.

Following is a compilation of some student writings during their trip:

Nordic Service Learning Trip
Group in front of mural at University of Stockholm School of Social Work, with Professor Renate Minas (holding t-shirt), Fall 2014 Wheelock College Presidential International Visiting Scholar

“Being flawed myself and recognizing that my country is not perfect, I did not truly appreciate Sweden until I learned that she has flaws of her own.

I was startled to learn that the Swedish system of foster care and residential homes has deep challenges and is failing to provide optimal results for the children in care. Surprisingly… residential homes are run by private, for profit companies as some municipalities move toward a system of using subcontractors to provide services. Although researchers have identified deep issues, such as increased rates of school failure, resulting in increased suicide rates among this group of young people, the government has failed to enact changes.

While learning that the system is failing this vulnerable group left me saddened, at the same time learning of this deep challenge in the Scandinavian social system has, in a strange way, enamored me to Sweden.

I began to reflect on why. Why would hearing about Sweden’s challenges make it more possible for me to “be friends” with Sweden? … I found the image of Sweden as a perfect utopia to be off putting. It made me defensive of my own country and her imperfections and challenges. Learning that Sweden has her own flaws puts us on an equal plane. We can learn from each other. Learn from each other’s successes, while accepting each other’s imperfections, and continually striving toward improvement. Indeed, Sweden never pretended to be perfect. Now that I have met her, seen her face and heard of her challenges, I more truly appreciate her and know that we will be friends.”
Beth Zois


“The Swedish welfare system is built on the theories of universalism, solidarity, equality, generosity and the redistribution of resources. This model includes specifics such as free health insurance for everyone, equal health care, free schooling after pre-school, monetary bonuses to support children, free elderly care, and many other very nice benefits. What’s even better is that in order to receive these benefits you do not have to be a citizen of Sweden.

While the country has a very high graduation rate, a poverty rate that is very low compared to many other European countries and many other positive aspects, there are still issues with the system that might not be so apparent at first glance. There is an increasing population of beggars in the streets who have come from other EU countries because (as we were told) life on the streets in Sweden is better than life in their own countries. One issue that was discussed, during the presentations from the PhD students as well as Dr. Vinnerling during our visit to the University of Stockholm, was the issue of the foster care system within Sweden.

As a biostatistics major, I found Dr. Vinnerling’s presentation easy to understand because he showed us the trends of what happens to children who are put into the foster care system in a very statistical manner. He began by giving everyone a “crash course” in epidemiology, which, for me being a data nerd, was a very welcome topic. By the end of his presentation he summed up very well that the way to keep children in Swedish foster care systems from dropping out of school and being able to do better in life is to intervene and help them not fail in any of their academic classes. The researchers that studied intervening in these cases appeared to have been successful in showing that along with gender; not failing in school contributes to opportunities that adolescents in foster care have to succeed as adults.”
Criosanna Allred


Group with Prof Bo Vinnerljung after class on Child Welfare in Sweden
Group with Prof Bo Vinnerljung after class on Child Welfare in Sweden

“What an amazing occurrence to have the opportunity to be involved and be immersed in the subject of my interest. To be here in Sweden, not just to study but to also experience the life, culture and political system of a nation that has so many different facets than ours.

From the reading about the Nordic policy, I considered their economic system to be so impressive and exemplary, that some of its features could be applied to our own in order to help improve the social conditions of many communities in Massachusetts, not to say the entire US. Then again, there are some very core commonalities: We all respect human dignity, value human life and want to improve the life of our citizen. Although the specter of gross inequality exists all over the world, the Scandinavian social welfare net provides for less of a severe economic disparity.

There is valid argument to be made that the pursuit of economic equality for all is inherently fraudulent, unattainable and undesirable in a free society. In one in our group discussion after our visit to the University of Stockholm, it was mentioned that America makes people responsible for their poverty while the Nordic policies are helping most achieve their full potential. In my opinion, maybe this is an area to focus for improving individual life without stigmatizing them because of their misfortune. Equality does not exist but blaming the poor is certainly not an approach for a solution.

Christiania (a semi-autonomous region within the city of Copenhagen) was an old military base founded in September of 1971 by a group of squatters seeking peace and a place to live. Miraculously enough it has managed to endure decades, and become a self-sustaining commune. I thought it was absolutely incredible that the Danish government lets them be a self-autonomous governing region because if a group of people had tried something similar in America, or in most other parts of the world, you can bet that the government and the military would use brute force to make them pack up and leave.

Irwin Nesoff with Anne K. Grimsrud and Bjørn Peterssen of Fagforbundet the Norwegian Union of municipal and General Employees
Irwin Nesoff with Anne K. Grimsrud and Bjørn Peterssen of Fagforbundet the Norwegian Union of municipal and General Employees

There was more diversity inside the walls of Christiania than I have seen all week in either Sweden or Denmark, and there was a very strong sense of camaraderie between every single person there, whether they were tourists, lived there, or were just visiting. There were not many rules inside of the commune; a few of them included having fun, no running, and no racism. There were small stores, and food shops. Along with a health center, and a kindergarten. There were children learning how to play soccer in the after school program, and babies running on the grass while residents looked after them. …. I talked to a handful of young adults who were sitting on a picnic bench and all of them said that this place was like a safe haven for many people, including themselves. And they all said that it was probably the safest part of Copenhagen.

Christiania was so surreal, and beautiful. I went back to visit twice after my initial guided tour, and I can’t wait to come back again someday and visit some more.”
Skye MacDonald


Students with executive staff of the Danish national Center for Social Research
Students with executive staff of the Danish national Center for Social Research

“In Copenhagen I have noticed a balance in innovation to keep up with the global market while also taking ownership of their modern advances and their impact on city and in turn, the globe. Copenhagen however, is not devoid of consumerism and capitalism. I have seen entire transit station escalators wrapped in movie advertisements, neon signs for cigarette brands and more. I do, however, think that their rate of consumption as a whole is minor compared to the American rate.

With that in mind, it appears to me that Copenhagen’s efforts to minimize their negative impact are apparent and effective. For instance, their recycling efforts are incentivized. In America, we have just been told, “Well, you should just do it because it’s good for the environment, just trust us”. In Copenhagen, citizens are rewarded with 5 Danish Krowns (the equivalent of about 91 cents in American currency). That is a substantial and motivating incentive that generates remarkable results.

I see this concept of offsetting environmental impact again with the emphasis on bicycles as the primary mode of transportation. The Danes pay roughly 180% sales tax on automobiles to encourage the use of bicycles. This means that someone intending to purchase a car needs to budget nearly three times the cost of the vehicle to make the purchase. This tax, combined with designated bike lanes, exclusive bike stop lines and traffic signals, make it easier, safer and more popular to ride a bicycle.

I believe it is important to point out that taxation alone does not encourage the government’s intended behavior for the citizens. It is the act of taxing combined with convenient ways to execute the acts that make them popular and therefore successful. Rewarding citizens who recycle with 5 cents in the US does not necessarily lead to high participation. But a higher can and bottle redemption reward combined with ubiquitous stations to carry out the act, is what encourages the citizens to participate. Taxing auto purchases alone would not lead to more bike use but integrating bikes into the city infrastructure with designated lanes and signals will help.

These successful initiatives go back to the concept of high expectations coupled with high support, a theme that has emerged in our studies of the Nordic model. One cannot expect to change the behavior of a large population without providing support, opportunities and encouragement to do so. In Copenhagen, I see well-executed examples of this notion.”
Ciarra Latimer


Students with Kjell-Ake Eriksson and Erik Svendfeldt of the Swedish Association of Regions and Localities
Students with Kjell-Ake Eriksson and Erik Svendfeldt of the Swedish Association of Regions and Localities

“One specific issue that has struck me is that both Sweden and Denmark have been having an influx in immigration in recent years (mostly refugees from Eastern European countries like Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Romania after they joined the European Union, or EU). Many of the people from these countries suffer poor living conditions and high unemployment in their own nations, and they move to Scandinavian countries to seek out security from the Nordic welfare systems. It is relatively easy for these immigrants to qualify as residents in as little as three months to begin collecting state assistance and welfare.

As a result, the demand for social welfare has increased significantly, but the taxes being collected do not offset the increase in costs. This could eventually pose a problem to the social welfare system. Also, if E.U. immigrants move to Denmark or Sweden to work, they can receive the child allowance each month and send it back to their home country where their children are still living. Research has shown that not a large percentage of people are actually doing this presently, there is some debate as to whether this should continue, as it may eventually become a problem.

While there are many debates by the Scandinavian countries’ about the best steps to deal with this large migration of E.U. citizens, my perception is that they are also dealing with an increase in discrimination towards these immigrants as citizens feel the pressure of the competitive job market and shared welfare systems.

I think the reason this particular issue resonated with me is because it made me think about how many US citizens view immigration and seek to resolve the issue. I am able to see the vast differences in US history compared to Sweden or Denmark. Immigration is a pretty new phenomenon to these relatively homogenous Scandinavian countries; however, it has been something that the US has been “dealing with” since our nation’s inception (we are a nation of immigrants).”
Ashlee Culp


Students with staff of the Swedish municipality of Upplands Vasby
Students with staff of the Swedish municipality of Upplands Vasby

“This morning after breakfast, I headed for my morning walk as usual. When we stopped at a store to look in the window, the owner came out, I asked him if the building across the street as a church, he told us that it was an old Catholic church, but now it is a shelter. He suggested that we could visit if we wanted.

I was looking for that great opportunity to speak either with a social worker, or a direct service worker; so here I am in front of the reality. We crossed the street, and pressed the doorbell. A lady came out, her name is Nina. At first, she said that we have to make an appointment.   Once we introduced ourselves as students from Wheelock College and our goal is to seek information on social services program to compare to our model, she invited us inside. She is a residential counselor who worked 69 hours one week and off the other week at night. The house has 18 battered women. She defined five different forms of violations which are: mental, physical, threats, sexual, and economical abuse that these women suffered, and some of these women have children. She gave us an introduction about how this shelter was built by a woman who married a king in 1870, and her passion was to be of services to these women.

Compared to shelters in Massachusetts it is similar with the exception that employees work more hours to meet the residents’ needs. In addition, they have social workers and psychologist on site. She further stated that they have different level of shelters around the city. When one of the clients called her we stopped having spent at least 45 minutes.”
– Yvette Clairvil


Irwin Nesoff with Executive staff of the Danish National Center of Social Research
Irwin Nesoff with Executive staff of the Danish National Center of Social Research

“This morning after our meeting Yvette and I decided to walk, we found a beautiful park not far from the hotel that extended to three lakes that were separated by surrounding residential apartments. We met a nice couple from California who moved here to Copenhagen.

On our way back, I stopped at a design center and spoke with the owner as I was interested in his cabinet making. His kindness led into a conversation of social policies and social work.  He advised us to check out the women’s shelter directly across the street from his store.

Yvette and I went to see if we could possibly come in and speak to or interview someone and they allowed us in. The pictures will show its history. We spoke with a night worker named Nina.  Nina is not a social worker, but was a teacher previously.

Nina explained to us that there was a woman who married a King in 1870, the King passed away and she inherited his money.  She took the money and bought this building, where she opened a home for older women. Years later, it was bought by a group of women that turned it into a research project for Social Workers, then in 1979 they decided to reconstruct the building and turn it into a shelter for battered women. Now it is a residential program for women & children dealing with domestic violence, supported by local taxes through the city council. The money comes from the city council; the staff approves the client after an assessment and then are communed or approved by the city council.”
Stacey Holliday


Irwin Nesoff with Prof Renate Minas
Irwin Nesoff with Prof Renate Minas

“I have been having an incredible time in Scandinavia, and now between Sweden and Denmark, there is so much that I could write about.

Right now, as I sit here trying to write my thoughts, the thing that is sticking in my head is how much I love, and how deeply I feel connected to Copenhagen, Denmark. Before I got here, I was excited, as with any part of the trip, but after being here, I feel such an inexplicably strong connection to this city. It is as if it is on some sort of spiritual level. Before even leaving, I felt I knew I needed to come back. I feel like something wants me to stay here. Tivoli (an amusement park) was magical, especially lit up, and the rides were amazing!

The self-governing society of Christiania blew me away. The art everywhere was fascinating and the creativity of the space consumed me. It felt free and lively. I felt happy, calm, peaceful and at home. Freedom and home are words that replay in my head, when I think of this unbelievable place. Christiania’s story of starting as a social movement, basically “hippies” taking over abandoned buildings, is empowering and fascinating.

Copenhagen also feels homey. It is similar to Boston in some ways. I found a space that reminded me of Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market, and it was wonderful! There were also “live statues,” which are something I had seen in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. Being reminded of other cities I am in love with must have definitely added to my love for Copenhagen.

Of course, Denmark is no Massachusetts or Louisiana, because it is definitely no United States. This is evident simply through walking around; one will notice many people, including children, riding bikes in designated bike lanes, and also parents on bikes with a little “wagon/basket” like space in the front of their bikes which children often ride in. The cleanliness of the city is also very clear. The transportation system also seems superior to Boston in that trains and buses appear to run on time, and seem much cleaner.

Obviously, the healthcare, educational system, and all social services are the main differences between Denmark and the US. One thing that stood out to me was all of the assistance for people who are disabled. There is an ability to be provided a caretaker and choose the person who will be paid for by the state, even if the person is family! There are also grants for renovating homes and cars, which I found incredible. I am struggling to even search for grants to help my mom get a new motor scooter, though her car is also not in the best condition. Denmark seems to provide almost (if not) anything that a person may need, and to think that this could mean the state giving a person a motor scooter is phenomenal.”
Rachel Copans

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  1. Great post.

    Well, social research is necessary for every students so that they come to know the reality of the life in society. They get to know about how to fight against the upcoming circumstances.

    Brin Edward