The Myth of Independent American Families

In Nordic countries, people rely on the state. In the U.S., they rely on their communities.

A father and child appearing to be alone on horseback are actually on a film set, surrounded by other people.
Celia Jacobs

In 1970, a 17-year-old named Lars Tragardh left Sweden for America, trading in the collectivism of his home country for rugged individualism. Or so he thought.

His disillusionment began while he was applying for college financial aid. He hoped to attend Pomona College in Southern California, and even back then, tuition seemed steep compared with the cost of education in Sweden, where university was free. When he learned that the school had two sets of aid forms—one regarding his own income, and one for his parents’—he was surprised. “Well, what does that have to do with me?” Tragardh recalls asking. “I’m an adult … I have no economic relations to my family anymore.” An administrator explained that in America, parents are expected to contribute to their children’s college costs.

Tragardh thought that sounded generous, but also concerning. Wouldn’t that sort of financial dependence give parents unreasonable influence over their adult children? What if the child wanted to study, say, history, but the parents refused to pay unless their child pursued medicine? “They looked at me like I was from Mars,” Tragardh, now a historian living in Stockholm, told me.

America has a reputation, both at home and abroad, as a country that values independence above practically all else. That ideal undergirded the sweeping Clinton-era welfare-reform bill, which made it much harder for families with little to no income to qualify for lasting assistance in many states. Then-Senator Joe Biden voted in favor of it, agreeing that “the culture of dependence must be replaced with the culture of self-sufficiency.” A quarter of a century later, when President Biden proposed revamping the child tax credit—sending an increased monthly payment to certain low- and middle-income parents—Senator Marco Rubio claimed that it would undo “decades of bipartisan effort” to encourage “work instead of dependency.” The expanded credit was passed into law but expired last year. Dependency, it would seem, is profoundly un-American.

But from Tragardh’s perspective, that commitment to independence rings hollow. To him, Americans seem to have confused individualism with anti-statism; U.S. policy makers happily throw people into positions of reliance on their families and communities in order to keep the state out. He’s got a point. We have our own culture of dependence, and it comes with its own shortcomings.

In Nordic countries, people generally have help paying for college—just not from their parents. Take Sweden, for example: Most European students don’t have to pay tuition, and Swedish citizens can apply for a stipend to cover their living expenses. All young people, in university or not, with incomes below a certain threshold can qualify for a housing allowance. And if they go on to begin families of their own, they’re automatically eligible for paid parental leave and, after kids turn 1, low-cost child care.

With little of this guaranteed in the U.S., young people have to turn elsewhere. Americans are more and more likely to live with their parents in their 20s and 30s, and in most cases, the parents are paying the lion’s share of the housing costs. About a third of low-income adults cite the need for child care as a reason for such an arrangement. And many grown people who don’t live with their parents still rely on them financially for help with college tuition, loans, rent, mortgages, or child-care costs. This interdependency sometimes goes in the other direction, too: Adult children commonly take on the role of primary caregiver for their aging parents, especially those with lower incomes who can’t afford professional help.

When Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist and the author of The Nordic Theory of Everything, moved to the U.S., she was continually struck by the degree to which Americans’ well-being depends on their relations. Some small examples stood out, such as the fact that married couples file their taxes jointly, or that expecting parents get their child-care gear from baby showers. Others she found more troubling: an acquaintance who was battling cancer, for instance, and couldn’t leave a bad relationship without losing her partner’s health insurance. Or the many mothers who, unable to afford child care, have to leave their job and rely on their husband’s income.

The familial dependencies woven through American life are notable to Scandinavians like Tragardh and Partanen because the Nordic welfare state, especially in Sweden, is designed to eliminate precisely those dependencies. In fact, Tragardh came to conclude that Sweden’s guiding ideology is not so much collectivism as it is statist individualism; the goal, as he and his co-author Henrik Berggren once put it, is to make individuals “as independent of his or her fellow citizens as possible.” Partly for this reason, Swedish universities stopped taking parental income into account in financial-aid decisions, Tragardh told me. Policies such as universal health care serve a similar purpose: to support citizens so that their families don’t have to.

Eliminating personal dependencies might sound dystopian, but the idea is not to banish our most intimate relationships—only to ensure that they are based in desire rather than need. It’s rooted in what Tragardh and Berggren describe in their book as the “Swedish theory of love,” which views mutual autonomy as a prerequisite for a healthy relationship. To depend heavily on one’s family members or friends not only puts your welfare at the mercy of their whims, the thinking goes, but hamstrings your ability to engage with them authentically. By removing power relations, Swedish social policies free people to associate while making decisions for themselves, without the pressure to stay in the good graces of a benefactor.

Of course, the cost of interpersonal independence is dependence on the state, which comes with its own risks of abuse. But the point isn’t that the Nordic model is perfect. It’s that America’s culture of self-reliance is a bit of a myth—and that as a policy goal, fostering total self-reliance is unrealistic. The alternative to the nanny state is not a country full of rugged individualists bootstrapping their way to self-sufficiency; it’s one where adults are heavily dependent on the bank of Mom and Dad. “We are dependent animals,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, told me. “It’s a kind of chimerical claim to think that you can kind of live in this autonomous way. And so the question is: dependent upon whom?”

When citizens are left to rely on their families, their prospects are wildly unequal: The more money your relations have, the better off you’re likely to be. And in an economy in which social mobility can require physical mobility—moving away from home to pursue an education or career—reaching financial independence is especially difficult. Some people just aren’t able to sacrifice child care or the roof over their head in order to take such a leap.

Others might not want to; caring for people can, admittedly, be enriching. In fact, perhaps because I am American, the Nordic fear of family dependence strikes me in much the same way I imagine American fears of government overreach might strike a Swede—as a little exaggerated. My mother cared for my grandparents in their declining years; I expect to do the same for her, and that prospect feels more like an expression of my love than a threat to it.

Then again, I remember well the quarrels that arose among my mother and her siblings under such strains. In America, we take those difficulties for granted, but it may be worth considering what life would look like without them. Perhaps without the burden of my grandparents’ care, my mother might have been freer to enjoy the precious time she had left with them.