Sweden is often described as ”a paradise for women”, providing possibilities to combine work and family life like no other welfare state, with generous leave schemes, but also universal, high quality child care facilities. At the same time Sweden is a champion in creating social equality through redistributing and inclusive welfare schemes. Germany is instead known to be the opposite to Sweden in those regards: still holding on the long outdated male-breadwinner model with a male earner and a female carer, and stabilizing rather than levelling out social inequality through its social security schemes which are known to deepen the differences between labor market in- and outsiders.
In 2007, something utterly surprising happened: a conservative government in conservative Germany introduced a parental insurance which was modelled in detail after the existing Swedish insurance. This provoked a debate among those studying welfare, mostly among scholars focusing on gender, but also in mainstream welfare research. Was this reform in Germany actually a sign of a movement of this prototype of a conservative, status-stabilizing welfare state towards a model which promotes gender- and social equality? Or was this measure doomed to fail its original purpose in the otherwise conservative context of the German social security system?
The Swedish welfare state is not as inclusive and generous as many believe
In my thesis Mothers Social Citizenship I compared how well mothers are protected against poverty and financial dependence of a male breadwinner in Germany and Sweden after the introduction of parental insurance in Germany. The analysis shows that the German and the Swedish welfare state perform surprisingly equal in protecting mothers from poverty if we look at the formal rights of single mothers with different labor market status: while those who had an average paid full-time work before their parental leave are well protected against poverty in both countries, already part-time work reduces their income during parental leave so considerably that they linger just above the poverty line. Single mothers with a longer distance to the labor market clearly fall below the poverty line in both countries,which is most surprising for the Swedish welfare state, as it is known to be so inclusive and generous in its welfare provision.
The male breadwinner model: Still alive and kicking
For married mothers, the analysis shows that Germany still performs much worse in protecting women from financial dependence of a male breadwinner. Not even the former full time workers are protected from being dependent of their husband when on parental leave. This is due to the still existing joint taxation in Germany: as parental insurance is calculated on the basis of earlier net-income, and joint taxation most usually leads to a very high tax-burden on wives in a marriage, their parental insurance is lowered considerably and they have to rely on their husband for financial security. Joint taxation was abolished in Sweden already in the 1970s, but still married mothers are surprisingly poorly protected from falling into financial dependence during their parental leave even here. Only full time work before their parental leave enables mothers to maintain their financial independence during parental leave, part-time work leads to a vulnerable financial position, and those with a longer distance to the labor market are highly dependent of their male partner for income. Overall, married mothers fare much worse than single ones during their parental leave when calculating individual, not household-income. This is due to the fact that many benefits, in Germany as well as in Sweden, are means-tested and treat the household as the smallest entity. So even in Sweden, the welfare state that so many times is portrayed as the forerunner in providing individual social citizenship even to women, many social rights “vanish” as soon as a male breadwinner is in place as he is supposed to provide for his wife. This construction of one person as the main provider in a family obviously comes with a problematic power imbalance between men and women, and could only be observed in this study as I based my calculation on individual and not household income, a practice which is highly unusual, even in current welfare research.
Women’s integration into the labor market is the most important factor
So why is Sweden still much better in preventing mothers from falling into poverty, a fact that has been proven in so many studies? My thesis shows that this prevention in mothers’ poverty mainly lies in a better integration of mothers in the labor market in Sweden than in Germany. Because of this better integration in (full time) paid work, more mothers are eligible to wage-related social insurances in Sweden than in Germany. This issue is not new to welfare research, but earlier studies usually emphasize thecombination of generous and inclusive welfare with a high integration of women in the labor market. What my study shows is that the integration of women in the labor market is not one of two, but the most important factor for Sweden’s high performance in poverty prevention among women. It should also be noted that this good performance in poverty prevention is further highly dependent on salaries which lie over a certain level and therewith lead to wage related benefits which lift people above the poverty line, and the low level of “short part time”. The low level of mothers’ integration in the labor market, an expanding low-wage sector and a high level of short part-time jobs in which women are overrepresented account to the much lower performance in poverty prevention for mothers in Germany.