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EU spotlight on Nordic poverty

EU spotlight on Nordic poverty

| 28.05.2010 | Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén Photo: Mikael Nybacka

The European Union's Year for Combating Poverty 2010 touches a sore spot in Sweden and Finland. Poverty and social exclusion is on the rise while politicians maintain their welfare policies are solid enough to face the challenges. Poverty experts agree that in this debate the EU Commission plays the progressive force to the Nordic governments' conservative one.

"The EU came up with the debate, but the solutions must be found in the Nordic countries," says researcher Heikki Hiilamo at the The Social Insurance Institution of Finland. He was among those debating the problems of growing social divides at the Hanaholmen cultural centre in Esbo outside Helsinki at the end of May.

Youth, immigrants

A rather sombre picture of developments in Sweden and Finland was presented at the seminar. Groups who never recovered from the latest depression in the early 1990's are being joined by new citizens - in particular young adults and immigrants. Finland and Sweden no longer live up to their roles as EU's model countries but are to be found at the bottom of the heap when it comes to fighting poverty.

"It's not that easy to compare countries because of differences in household sizes, but the overriding picture is that neither Finland nor Sweden come out looking good when we study this issue," says Johan Fritzell, professor of sociology at Stockholm University's  Centre for Health Equity Studies. This is about more than people who lag behind in comparisons with other countries - it is about households where people cannot afford to eat or people who have no home at all.

"We can see absolute poverty on the streets of Helsinki every day," says Mirjam Kalland. She is secretary general at the Mannerheims League for Child Welfare, and regards the rapidly growing poverty in families with young children as a blot on Finland's social conscience. What no-one thought was possible in the Nordic welfare state has happened: poverty and being an outsider is being passed down the generations, creating a new group of outsiders.

"When you end up on the outside of society as a young adult is has long-term consequences," says Olof Bäckman at Stockholm's Institute for Future Studies. He points out that young people are far worse off when they enter today's recession compared to those who faced the bust in the early 1990s.

The income divide in Finland and Sweden is on the whole smaller than for the rest of the EU, but that says more about the dire state of affairs in the Union than of how good things are in the Nordic countries, according to Mr Kalland.

Criminalisation of poverty

Romany beggars, mainly from Romania, on many Helsinki street corners are quiet reminders of the EU's common poverty problem. There is a heated debate in parliament over whether to criminalise begging. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's contribution to the debate was a public request for people to not give money. But this is about more than poor and persecuted people. 

Poverty has been visible in Helsinki since the mid-1990s thanks to the church's so-called bread queues - people queuing for free food. Helsinki's more prosperous citizens didn't use to have to see the poverty, but now beggars have made their way to Helsinki's main financial quarter. In Stockholm poverty has been made invisible.    

"It is funny to hear that Swede's cannot deal with seeing bread queues. If the EU strategy is to highlight poverty, we have been very successful in Finland," says Olavi Sydänmaanlakka who works with young people in crisis situations. He prefers the visible poverty because it forces politicians to react. 

Even thought the EU has helped start a debate about the problem, the main focus remains on the present Nordic policies and on temporary measures, according to Mr Hiilamo.

Protecting the established

Welfare policy is a tool to help those already established in society deal with upsets within their working life, while those who never managed to enter the labour market tend to fall outside the social safety net. Every second unemployed Swede gets nothing from society. The system only protects those who are already established.

"We have a very contradictory welfare development. Most people are absolutely fine. Sweden has become five times richer in real terms during my lifetime. But in the middle of all this abundance we leave behind certain groups," says professor Tapio Salonon from the Linnaeus University in Växsjö. This development has gone on unchanged by economical cycles since the early 1980s. Politicians spend time on petty issues while the main issue - all those who have no rights to benefits whatsoever - is forgotten.

Tapio Salonen sees a "welfare conservatism" among Swedish politicians. The welfare state is in place, all they feel they need to do is look after its legacy. 

Mirjam Kalland says the situation is different in Finland. There is no conservatism, but rather politicians "with loud voices and steady gazes" who can spout any "rubbish" they want. 

Where will the money come from?

The big question for the coming ten years will be how to finance the welfare state. Even though the economic crisis is over in BNP terms, social problems will grow in the next three to four years.

Mirjam Kalland wonders why no Finnish politicians seem to cease on the fact that Finns don't object to paying more tax if needs be. Johan Fritzells reckons politicians are fighting to cut taxes for the rich "so they can be bothered going to work". Heikki Hiilamo suggests a "super tax" for the richest. Tapio Salonen underlines the importance of keeping faith in the economic growth.

"But growth is a completely overrated parameter for social development. Yet it is the altar upon which we sacrifice everything."

He would like to see an analysis of which groups benefit from the social divide, and why young people and immigrants are kept on the outside. Tapio Salonen also agreed with the other researchers that the long term consequences would be costly for the Nordic countries. There are general elections in Sweden this autumn and in less than a year in Finland. The researchers hope poverty will become a central theme for both campaigns. 


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