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

The country has cheaper medical care, smarter children, happier moms, better working conditions, less-anxious unemployed people, and lower student loan rates than we do. And that probably will never change.
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A child in Finland being happy, as usual. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

It's hard not to get jealous when I talk to my extended family.

My cousin's husband gets 36 vacation days per year, not including holidays. If he wants, he can leave his job for a brief hiatus and come back to a guaranteed position months later.

Tuition at his daughter's university is free, though she took out a small loan for living expenses. Its interest rate is 1 percent.

My cousin is a recent immigrant, and while she was learning the language and training for jobs, the state gave her 700 euros a month to live on.

"Everyone should get a slice of the cake so that they have what they need to realize their life projects."

They had another kid six years ago, and though they both work, they'll collect 100 euros a month from the government until the day she turns 17.

They of course live in Finland, home to saunas, quirky metal bands, and people who have for decades opted for equality and security over keeping more of their paychecks.

Inarguably one of the world's most generous -- and successful -- welfare states, the country has a lower infant mortality rate, better school scores, and a far lower poverty rate than the United States, and it's the second-happiest country on earth (the U.S. doesn't break the top 10). According to the OECD, Finns on average give an 8.8 score to their overall life satisfaction. Americans are at 7.5.

Sometimes when I'm watching the web traffic for stories here at The Atlantic's global desk, I'll notice a surge in readership in one of a couple of archival stories we have about how fantastic Finland is -- usually thanks to Reddit or a link from another news site. One is about Finland's "baby boxes, " a sort of baby shower the Finnish government throws every mom. A package sent to expecting women contains all the essentials for newborns -- everything from diapers to a tiny sleeping bag. (Want to choose your own baby clothes? You can opt instead for the box's cash value, as my cousin did.)

The other popular story is about Finland's school system, which ranks as one of the world's best -- with no standardized testing or South Asian-style "cramming" but with lots of customization in the classroom. Oh, and students there also spend fewer hours physically in school than their counterparts in other Western countries.

As the U.S. raises student loan rates, considers cutting food stamps, guts long-term unemployment insurance, and strains to set up its first-ever universal healthcare system, it's easy to get sucked into articles about a country that has lapped America in certain international metrics but has also kept social protections in place. Like doting parents trying to spur an underperforming child, American liberals seem to periodically ask, "Why can't you be more like your brother?"

It's a good debate to have, and in some ways, it seems like there's no reason why the U.S. shouldn't borrow from Finland or any other Nordic country -- we're richer and just as committed to improving education and health, after all. Here's the difference: Finland's welfare system was hardwired into its economic development strategy, and it hasn't been seriously challenged by any major political group since. And just as Finland was ramping up its protections for workers, families, and the poor in the 1960s, Americans began to sour on the idea of "welfare" altogether. What's more, some economists argue that it's because of all that American capitalism contributes to the global economy that countries like Finland -- kinder, gentler, but still wealthy -- can afford to pamper their citizens. With actual Pampers, no less.

***

Let's start with mandatory maternity leave, a favorite topic among the having-it-all, Leaning-In crowd. The U.S is one of the last countries on earth without it, but the Finnish state mandates four months of paid maternity leave, and on top of that, the mother and father can share an additional six-month "parental leave" period, with pay. After that, kids can either continue staying home with their mothers until they reach school age, or parents can instead send them to a publicly subsidized child-care center, where the providers are all extensively trained. The cost is on a sliding scale based on family income, but the maximum comes out to about $4,000 a year, compared with $10,000 for comparable care in the U.S.

This is just one of the many reasons Finland is "the best place to be a mom," as the nonprofit Save the Children declared in May.

Can't get a job? Not to worry. Unemployment insurance in Finland lasts for 500 days, after which you can collect a means-tested Labor Market Subsidy for an essentially indefinite period of time. (The unemployment rate is a high-but-not-awful 8.2 percent).

At this point, if you've literally turned green with envy and need to see a doctor, you're in luck! In addition to dirt-cheap universal healthcare, Finland offers compensation for wages you might have lost while you were away from work, as well as a "Special Care Allowance" if you need to take some time off to take care of your sick kids.

All of this adds up to the stress equivalent of living in what is essentially a vast, reindeer-fur-lined yoga studio.

"It seems to me that people in Finland are more secure and less anxious than Americans because there is a threshold below which they won't fall," said Linda Cook, a political scientist at Brown University who has studied European welfare states. "Even if they face unemployment or illness, Finns will have some payments from the state, public health care and education."

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

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