Ulla Nordenstam

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (WOMENSENEWS)–Working mothers, would-be working mothers and stay-at-home moms, imagine this: Full-time preschool child care, including meals, for slightly more than $100 a month for one child, another $70 for a second, $33 for a third. That’s tops; many families will pay less.

Starting next January, these will be the suggested caps on the cost of universal preschool child care for children 1 to 5. Virtually all municipalities, the largest providers of state subsidized child care, are expected to go along, in an effort to make it easier for women to work and to retain more of their earnings. The Swedish government has agreed to increase its subsidies to offset the centers’ lost revenues.

At the same time, after-school fees also will be cut by half and capped at a maximum $75 a month for a first child, $35 for a second and third. No fees are required for fourth and succeeding children. Also starting in January, parents will receive an annual allowance per child of $1,200.

In a nation of almost 9 million inhabitants, 64 percent of children 1 to 5 attend preschool, and capping child care fees is highly popular. National legislation only passed last fall, however, after a long and heated debate in the Swedish Parliament.

Critics say caps on child-care fees does not go far enough because it only covers group preschools organized by municipalities and does not compensate parents who choose private or cooperative preschool, or who decide to care for their own children at home. And the critics claim the new policy, which ends a sliding-scale fee structure based on income, favors the rich who can afford to pay more.

The proposal of maximum preschool fees was put forward by Sweden’s Social Democratic government in the last parliamentary election in 1998. During an economic recession in the early 1990s, preschool fees were raised in many municipalities at the same time as state subsidies were cut.

Municipalities are required to provide preschool to all children 1 to 5; 6-year-olds also may attend free kindergarten preparation classes; regular school starts at age 7. Students 7 to 11 usually may remain after school for help with homework, special tutoring, music, sports, enrichment programs and excursions. Professional teachers supervise these activities and children receive a light meal.

Schooling is free for all students 7 to 18. Children’s health care is practically free. Most people are protected by an extensive social security system providing health care, parental leave, unemployment support and other benefits.

Swedes Pay Income Taxes as High as 55 Percent to Pay for Child Care, Benefits

Sweden’s generous subsidies of child care and other benefits are made possible by high income taxes, ranging from 30 percent to 55 percent.

At present, preschool fees vary greatly. A few preschools are free and some charge as much as $400 a month.

“This is a reform for social justice and security,” said Finance Minister Bosse Ringholm of the Social Democrat government, which introduced the legislation. He has set aside the equivalent of $1 billion in his budget for the next three years for subsidizing child care, as well as expansion and improvement. His budget is supported by the Left Party and the Green Party.

Debates, like the furor in the United States over whether day care is good for children, are virtually unheard of in Sweden where there is a national consensus about the benefits of and need for quality, affordable day care.

Ulla Nordenstam, education counselor at “Skolverket,” the National Agency of Education which supervises schools, said she is not aware of any Swedish research linking hours in day care with aggressive behavior. “Children’s behavior depends on the quality of day care. We have widespread and much higher quality day care in Sweden than in the United States.”

Most Children Spend First One or Two Years at Home With Parents

Nordenstam said that most Swedish children spend the first one or two years at home with their parents, because paid parental leave covers most of a stay-at-home parent’s lost income. Spending this critical time at home with parents, she indicated, may well reduce possible behavior problems.

“Studies in Sweden show that, on the contrary, children who went to preschool get much better results in school than others. Good day care is not harmful,” Nordenstam said.

Prime Minister Goran Persson, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, said that although parents are free to provide home care during a child’s early years, “group day care is a natural start in life for young children.” He added that the Swedish economy, emerging from an economic recession in the early 1990s, needs young parents in the workforce in order to spur economic growth.

“We need to provide reasonably priced day care to these people,” he said.

“From a purely selfish point of view, this is absolutely brilliant,” said 33-year old Mari Forssblad, mother of Tuva, 3, and Viggo, 18 months. “Next year, when both of them are going to attend preschool, the new maximum fee means that we can reduce child care costs by 40 percent.”

She and husband Kristofer, 34, both journalists, would have sent their children to preschool anyway, but less expensive child care will permit them to dramatically change their planned schedule.

Cap on Preschool Fees Makes It Possible for Some Parents to Stay Home More

“Next year I am going to work 50 percent, instead of the 80 percent I was planning for,” Forssblad said.

By law Swedish employers cannot refuse to accommodate a mother or father who wants to work part time in order to take care of their small children. Forssblad lives with her family in a suburb of Stockholm and admits she was fortunate to have found an excellent municipal day care center, with educated and caring teachers. Still, she is critical that only municipal group child care will be subsidized.

Swedish preschools are known for their high quality of care. More than half the personnel are qualified preschool teachers, with three years’ education in the field. During the recession, however, substantial staffing cutbacks resulted in larger class sizes.

Class sizes and student-teacher ratios vary among municipalities and according to different teaching styles. Once, a ratio of three teachers to 15 children was not uncommon; today the ratios are more likely to be two or one for every 15 children. In Montessori-type classes, one teacher might work with 30.

Currently in most Swedish municipalities, preschool fees are charged on a sliding scale geared to parents’ income. With its progressive tax system, many unemployed and low-income parents had little incentive to improve their earnings because more income meant higher taxes and higher child care fees. Some families even lost money by working more.

Today, Sweden’s improving economy has created an urgent and increasing need for labor, and the government is trying to make it easier and more profitable for women to work full time. An aging population and a reduced birth rate make it necessary to improve the situation for families with children.

Families Get 13 Months Paid Leave, Dads Pressed to Stay Home for Two Months

Sweden’s state budget contains additional benefits for families, effective in January 2002:

  • Paid parental leave will be prolonged by one month, from 12 to 13 months. Parents may stay at home with a child for 13 months taken over a period of eight years. They can take one month here, one month there, 13 consecutive months, summer months, half days, two days a week–whatever works best. Insurance covers as much as 80 percent of lost income.
  • Fathers are required to stay home for at least two of the 13 months, or the family loses the two months.
  • The child allowance, paid to all parents, will be raised by $240 a year to nearly $1,200 annually. The credit is universal and the same for every child, regardless of family income.
  • All children over 12 months old have the right to preschool activities, according to the new bill. The right extends to children of unemployed parents and children whose parents are at home with a new sibling, using the parental leave insurance, effective January 2003.

Critics call the bill an example of a “Big Brother” government deciding that all children need collective care and they argue that it favors well-off and rich families since they no longer will have to pay preschool fees geared to their income. Both rich and currently poor pay the same fee regardless of how much they can afford.

“This bill will force the parent to choose the collective day care, whether they want it or not,” said Chris Heister, a member of Parliament and spokeswoman for the conservative party, Moderata Samlingspartiet.

“Different families need different alternatives and they should all get the same conditions. Someone might find it better and easier to hire a nanny than to send their children to the municipality preschool. Others would want to stay at home longer with their kids, but with the new law they do not get any extra economic support. Parents are the ones who should make those decisions, not the government.”

Sweden’s powerful unions, however, strongly support the bill. The Union of Commercial Employees, with many low-income and part-time working members, has shown that capping child care costs means that a low-income single mother with two children can double her disposable income.

“The right to work full time is heartfelt for us,” said chair Ninel Jansson. “The maximum fee gives our low-income members the possibility to work more–they are gaining in two ways, both in higher income and in lower fees.”

“For someone with a low income or working part time, the maximum fee means that she can afford to work more,” Forssblad says. “To me it means that I can afford to work less.”

Inger Arenander is a free-lance journalist in Stockholm and contributor to Swedish national public radio. She covers politics and social issues.

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