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?