The Secret to Finland's Success With Schools, Moms, Kids—and Everything

And there are some major lifestyle differences: Finns live in houses and apartments that are about half the size of Americans', and their taxes on the wealthy, like those on capital gains, are much higher than ours. (Hence why taxes make up a huge chunk of their GDP.) Professionals such as doctors make far less there, which helps medical care to stay reasonably priced. (The conservative Heritage Foundation ranks Finland as downright "repressed" in some categories, like government spending, on its "Index of Economic Freedom.")

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Tax Policy Center

It's also worth noting that Finland isn't a total economic Wonderland, either: It's not growing very fast and will probably have issues with its aging population in coming years. The Bank of Finland recently predicted that the country might soon exceed the 60 percent debt-to-GDP ratio mandated by the European Union -- a common problem in Europe these days.

Some of Finland's more conservative politicians have suggested cutting public benefits there in the wake of the economic downturn -- but even with those cuts, social protections there would still be far more generous than ours.

And the economic redistribution there doesn't always work perfectly. Some municipalities inevitably find themselves with lower-quality hospitals and day cares, even when they're supposed to be roughly identical, and recently some pro-business groups have tried to edge the country toward greater privatization (though unions have pushed back.)

Still, the country's small, well-educated population and investments in technology have allowed it to avoid some of the problems currently plaguing other, similarly socialist European countries. Overall, most Finns love the welfare system that loves them back.

I asked my cousin's husband, Reijo, why he was willing to support such an arrangement even though he works full time.

"Money isn't everything. We value equality, not inequality," he said. Fair enough. But does he have any gripes about the Finnish way? Anything he would change? Perhaps kick some of those freeloaders off their indefinite unemployment?

No, he said, but he did point to one small issue: "I think that for university students it is not yet good enough. Many students have to work while they are studying."

***

Like Finland, the U.S. also set up massive safety-net programs, in the form of Medicare and Medicaid, in the 1960s. But paradoxically, many Americans began developing a deep aversion to government handouts at the same time.

The 1960s saw a rise in poverty and children born out of wedlock, particularly in urban communities. Sensational media stories about families "abusing" welfare -- especially when the putative abusers were portrayed as African-American -- helped cement opposition to public assistance. One study found that in the early 1970s, nearly three-quarters of magazine stories about welfare or poverty featured images of African-Americans, even though African Americans comprised only about a third of welfare recipients.

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"I do think that racial divisions are an important factor here -- the sense among many people that universal benefits will take from 'us' and give to 'them' -- to a part of society that is seen as different, less deserving, imagined as racially different," Cook, from Brown University, said. "I think that many middle-class Americans favor social benefits for what they see as 'deserving' people who have worked and earned them -- so Medicare is good -- but universal health care would provide benefits for people who are imagined as not deserving."

In a 1976 speech, Ronald Reagan made mention of supposed "welfare queens" who make six-figure salaries while drawing government funds, stoking a sense of outrage over perceived waste in public assistance. (It was later shown that he used an exaggerated anecdote). Arguing that social insurance dis-incentivized work, and prioritizing markets and individual liberty, the growing new conservative movement eventually joined together businesses and working-class voters in pushing for cuts in government programs.

Though we seemingly support spending on the sick, poor, and elderly, in 2006, 46 percent of Americans still thought the government spent "too much" on welfare, even 10 years after a total structural overhaul of welfare had passed.

***

Jefferey Sellers, a University of Southern California political scientist, found another key difference between the two nations: Finland has much more powerful local governments than the U.S., and they're tasked with executing the myriad functions of the welfare system -- from helping the poor to operating the day cares. Municipal taxes are redistributed and supplemented with grants, thus largely eliminating the problem of under-resourced areas. Local public expenditures are 20 percent of GDP in Finland, but just 10 percent in the U.S., he points out.

"The national government provides local governments with the financial means, legal powers, and the expertise to perform well," he said. Meanwhile, "Fiscal redistribution among local governments assures equality in how those services are distributed."

What's more, some economists argue that the only way countries like Finland can be so well-off and yet so cushy is because countries like the U.S. create the technology that powers the rest of the world -- with huge rewards for success but few safety nets in the case of failure.

"The entire world benefits because of Apple's iPhones," said Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, admitting it was a relatable but not necessarily optimal example (Finland gave us Nokia and Linux's Linus Torvalds, after all). "If the United States did not provide incentives for Apple to come up with and develop the iPhone, then the entire world economy would lose the benefits it obtains from this product. The cutthroat reward structure in the United States is encouraging the creation of many products and technologies like this."

If America were to adopt some of Finland's "cuddly" benefits, the thinking goes, the entire world economy might slow down. For Finns, it would be out with the baby boxes, in with the subsistence farming again.

So what about education reform, then? Finnish school expert Pasi Sahlberg has written that Finnish schools are based on "improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, and placing responsibility and trust before accountability."

It's true that Finnish teachers design their own curricula and don't have to deal with test-score-based evaluations, but school officials there are also placing young minds in very well-equipped hands: All teachers have graduate degrees in education and their subject areas of expertise. And schools are funded based on need, so the most struggling schools get the most resources. There is no "Teach for Finland," as Sahlberg has said.

But in some ways, even the Finnish way of educating requires a strong welfare system as a foundation. The country has an extremely low child-poverty rate, which likely makes teaching without testing or score-keeping much easier. And how many American teachers would love to get a master's degree but aren't willing to take on the student loans that come with it?

"The easiest [explanation] is to say that Finland seems to be a well-performing system overall, as far as the international rankings are considered," Sahlberg told me. "So, it is no wonder the education system also works well."

The no-testing model also makes sense for a culture that's low on one-upmanship: "I think one of the more important things is that there's less of an emphasis on competition in Finland," Marakowitz said. "Many Finnish children don't know how to read before they go to school, and you need a certain kind of cultural setting for that. Some U.S. parents would be quite freaked out."

***

When Americans hold up Finland as a model, their arguments are usually dismissed with two indisputable facts: Finland is indeed much smaller than the U.S., making it easier to disperse generous benefits on a national scale. It's also far more homogeneous, making disputes over payouts less frequent and less racially charged.

Still, Cook says, the claims of homogeneity are a bit over-stated. Finland has both sizeable Swedish- and Russian-speaking communities, and right-leaning parties like the "True Finns" want to pare back the little immigration the country does have. (Even the True Finns, though, love the welfare state.)

Building on the success of Finland's local governments, individual U.S. states could conceivably be more like mini-Finlands -- just look at Massachusetts, which had a comprehensive health-care system before the rest of the nation. But creating and enforcing 50 separate safety nets would require a level of oversight the U.S. federal government just doesn't have. Even Obamacare was challenged aggressively in court and has faced opposition from some two dozen states.

Fellman described Finland's welfare state as a "virtuous circle" -- Finns' social cohesion props up the welfare state, which in turn promotes greater harmony. But in a way, America's economic competitiveness, focus on innovation, and lack of safety net all reinforce one another, too.

The very reason we're so frequently googling what we can learn from "Finland's school success," after all, is that we want to stay one step ahead.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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