Family welfare in Finland - a lesson for Scotland

I had my child in Finland last year so I have first-hand experience of the care given to new parents, from the box of clothes the state gives every baby, to parental leave that’s the envy of most countries. I can stay at home with my child until she is three and my employer will keep my job for me, allowing me to maintain my career and raise my infant at home. I moved to Scotland to spend my maternity leave near family and have become acutely aware of the lack of support here beyond the first year of a child’s life.

The British welfare state was once something to be proud of, raising the standard of living and lifting countless families out of extreme poverty. Welfare reforms are now eroding benefits, but within Scotland’s independence debate social justice has been high on the agenda and the “Nordic model” held up as something we might have aspired to.

The debate highlighted the gulf between the neoliberal economics of Westminster that are increasing child poverty and a socially aware, left-leaning Scotland that naturally looks towards the Nordic countries for inspiration. Independence didn’t happen this time, but change is coming as people begin to realise a better society is possible. The Finnish welfare state ensures a work-life balance for both men and women and a good start for every child. I hope this will act as inspiration for what could be achieved in Scotland.

Finland looks after young families. A social security representative interestingly described parental pay to me as an “income already you have paid for”, rather than a benefit, suggesting a perception of welfare as a right. In the UK benefits hold a degree of stigma, even though they affect most people at some point in their lives, be it job seekers allowance, maternity pay, healthcare or a pension. As a wealthy country we can afford to ensure a minimum standard of living for all our citizens, tax-paying or not.

Many unemployed people provide great benefits for society beyond tax revenue - the invisible unpaid workforce who volunteer or care for dependents, including children. In Finland, stay-at-home parents of under-threes are eligible for home care allowance and municipal benefit after the initial paid year, as they are not using municipal childcare, but providing the service themselves. The work they do raising children is valued by society and they are paid to do that job; in turn they are more likely to feel valued as individuals.

Unvalued work

In Scotland there is no home care aid. The difference in attitude is reflected not only in the lack of state support but also socially. One Scottish stay-at-home mother said she was frequently referred to as “a lady of leisure” and felt pressure from society to return to the workforce, being told “most women return to work once the child is 6 months to 1 year”. Several wanted to work but could not afford childcare and many volunteered locally running play groups or providing networking services for families, but unless work is paid society doesn’t always value or recognise it as work.

Many parents are not ready to put their children into day care when they are very young, but return to work in order to maintain their career. In Scotland, most mothers who want a career (this still predominantly affects women) are forced back to work once their child is about 1 or they will lose their jobs and therefore potentially their careers, only to have a large proportion of their pay go on childcare: strangers raise their infant but they still have little extra money. High-paid workers might afford this, but for many the cost is crippling. Lower earners simply cannot afford to return to work even if they want to.

A Finnish mother living in Scotland said:

When my daughter went to nursery here in Glasgow, 75% of my salary went towards her care.

“If we’d had another child, I would not have been able to afford to work, which is insane.”

She pointed out that the situation is very different in Finland, where childcare is means-tested and inexpensive or free. Not all parents take more than the initial year off, either wanting to work or needing the income. The crucial difference is that they have a choice.

Childcare in Finland won’t seriously dent any income, unlike in Scotland where bills are higher than the average mortgage. Staying off work for three years won’t have a serious impact on a career since jobs are secure. In Scotland, parents do not have these choices; they are forced either to give up their career or pay crippling childcare bills. This leads to a very poor work-life balance. One Finnish mother who took advantage of the extended leave in Finland with both her children said:

Yes, of course it helped. Without the state provision it would have been much harder to stay home and probably I could not stay with children that time that I think was needed to be.

When I asked if having children had had an impact on her career, she said:

In the 1990, I think yes little bit, but I could catch up quite soon.

“Last time I used part of my leave to update my bachelor’s degree and I think this time it has had a positive impact on my career.*

Asked the same question, a Finnish mother living in Scotland said:

Career-wise it puts you back to square one… you have to show that you do as much work as everyone else.

“I often work way longer hours by doing stuff at home in the evenings. You feel that you are perceived as a mum at work rather than as an ambitious individual.”

She also highlighted that in Scotland salaried leave is only for six months; after that it drops to statutory pay (in Finland it is closer to a year), so she was forced back to work sooner than she would have liked and long-term breast feeding was not facilitated. She is still unable to work full time because of the cost of childcare and its lack of availability in rural areas.

Among fathers I noted a much greater degree of paternal involvement in Finland than in Scotland. In both countries, parental leave (following maternity leave) can be taken by the mother or father or a combination, allowing men to be more involved in bringing up children. Some men do become stay-at-home parents in Finland but in Scotland this is extremely rare, where paid paternity leave is only two weeks, compared with nine in Finland, and uptake of additional leave is very low.

Most Finnish men take their paternity leave, creating a culture of acceptance for fathers. In Scotland there is still some stigma associated with men taking time off from their careers, partly because childcare is still perceived as the mother’s job and fathers fear employers won’t look well on them taking a career break to raise children. Many cannot afford to take unpaid leave or are too busy, but if colleagues don’t take paternity leave a work culture develops where new fathers are expected to continue working.

A report by the ILM shows that less than 1% of fathers in the UK take up additional paternity leave and almost two-thirds of fathers (63%) take two weeks or less, fewer than one in 10 take any more than two weeks and a quarter take no leave at all. There is not the same stigma in Finland; a Finnish father I spoke to (a manager) felt no pressure to work beyond 3 pm when he picks up his child and spends time with his family, before catching up with work from home late in the evening. A British expat living Denmark had a similar experience and highlighted the difference in culture with Britain.

The widespread take-up by fathers of parental leave has also changed the culture in many offices.

“It is completely acceptable to leave at 4pm, or earlier… and to take days when the children are sick. My husband works in an expat-dominated company and it is noticeable that taking advantage of these benefits is not acceptable as part of the macho culture.”

This has the potential to lead to decreased paternal involvement in the early years, limiting bonding and engagement with children. Fathers are expected to work and employers are not always as accommodating to flexible hours for fathers as they may be for mothers because of stereotypical role perceptions, so fathers miss out on the early years.

In Finland, by contrast, 70% of fathers take paternity leave and 9% take parental leave, sharing it with their spouse or taking months or years off, leading to better bonding and increased engagement with their children’s lives. It also means the mother has a chance to resume her career earlier if she chooses, better facilitating an even work-life balance for both sexes.

One mother I interviewed in Finland shared her extended leave with her partner, both working half a week. She felt she was able to regain some of her life without sacrificing the needs of her child. “I come to work for a break and a rest”, she told me. Working in the career she enjoyed and being around other adults refreshed and energised her, allowing her to make the most of her time at home too. Her husband felt a greatly increased degree of family involvement.

Maternal employment levels are low in Scotland. Mothers who work can be trapped in low-paid, low-skilled, part-time work, especially in rural areas where there are serious childcare gaps. Improving childcare and making it affordable would benefit society by allowing skilled women to re-enter the labour market or extend their working hours, enabling many to move out of poverty and reduce reliance on benefits.

Finland is the only country with child poverty below 5% (3.3%) according to a UNICEF study. In the UK it is 10%, although the Scottish government sets the figure in Scotland at 19%. Finland spends twice as much (0.81% GDP) on childcare as the UK (0.4%). Full-time childcare for one child (42 hours) costs £9,880 in Scotland annually, 63% more than the average mortgage (£6,053). In Helsinki, the maximum full-time municipal childcare cost is €3,396 annually for those earning over €48,000, dropping until it is free for households earning below €20,052.

The economy loses out

Without decent childcare provision, children lose out on early education, families are unable to escape poverty because work doesn’t pay and the economy loses the skills and taxes of parents and has higher welfare and administration bills.

Finnish municipal childcare is readily available and low cost because it is subsidised. In Scotland, council childcare services and opening hours are very limited, unlike in Finland, and seldom allow for full-time work. Subsidies are targeted only at parents on very low incomes, in a complex benefits system with significant administration costs, money that could be better spent on childcare.

Targeting subsidies at parents rather than providers means providers may see an increase in parental income as an excuse to raise prices. Free-market operation also means that if supply is lower than demand, prices go up. Many nurseries recoup losses from free hours by increasing the price of paid hours so parents are cross-subsidising free education. This market failure is failing our children.

The assumption in Scotland that either mothers stay home with children or that grandparents will provide free childcare is outdated. Society has changed but state provision has not adapted. Men increasingly want to engage more with their children and women not only seek careers and independence, but also have to work because pay no longer keeps pace with the cost of living; one salary is seldom enough for a family.

People increasingly migrate from where they grew up and have children later in life, so grandparents are not always nearby or physically capable. Despite this, because of childcare costs, those who can in Scotland still rely heavily on informal childcare; 51% use grandparent care for children under two (32% UK-wide), while in Finland only 1.3% use informal childcare.

£10k isn’t a high price to pay for the most precious thing in your life.

One mother was told this by a family friend, but for many this means making significant sacrifices on food, heating or other essentials. Our children are our future; investing in them is investing in our future. Instead of targeting subsidies at parents, subsidise childcare providers so that fees are low and means tested. If Finland can, so can Scotland.

One mother in Finland thought childcare costs were too low for parents and that “it should be higher for those that are able to pay more”. She believes that the extra funding would lead to increased salaries and motivation, although it could also lead to decreased government subsidy.

It is parents who are judged by society when arguing whether benefits are deserved, but if parental welfare suffers, so does that of children. Unemployed single mothers are frequently attacked by the media; inexplicably, being single means they can’t do what housewives have traditionally done for decades - be there for their children as they grow up, look after them and educate them. The complaint, “scrounging single mothers should get a job like the rest of us”, which I’ve overheard, could better be translated as “these women have failed to secure a husband to support them, live outside the accepted family unit norms so have failed society and should be punished”.

But low earners simply cannot afford childcare, even if they earn so little that they receive subsidies. A single parent working full-time at minimum wage would still have to pay £3,510, or 28.1% of their gross salary, for childcare. Once earnings reach £17,000 the assistance plummets. They would have to earn £49,400 to be paying less than 20% of their salary for only one child.

The OECD shows a stark difference in employment rates among sole parents in Finland, where 51.4% of parents of 3-5-year-olds are in full-time work, compared with 18.7% in the UK. Women in Scotland who take more than a year off find it very difficult to pick up their career and may find themselves out of work for longer than intended, or earning far lower wages than previously. The state loses a skilled workforce and future tax revenue.

Empowering both parents

Parents who choose to stay at home with their children are doing an important job for the future of society and it is a choice parents should have without sacrificing their career. Parents should also have the choice to return to work without being crippled by childcare costs. The sooner we stop seeing mothers who raise infants themselves as ladies of leisure or scroungers, the sooner we begin to see the value in our unpaid workforce and the closer we may come to providing better for young families.

If provision is improved women will not have to make so many career sacrifices and, in turn, there will be less pressure on men to work full time. It is accepted, perhaps expected, that a woman will take at least a year off, possibly forfeit her career and stay off work until the children are in school and beyond, but men are expected to work. Even though paternity leave has improved, stigma still prevents many taking advantage of extended leave. Empower our women to make their own choices and we will empower our men too. Allow women to have the option of maintaining a career and we will facilitate giving men the option to be home carers.

The key factors that make balancing a career and family so manageable in Finland are the three years of leave, better benefits, low childcare costs, flexible opening hours and lack of paternity leave stigma. By adopting a similar system in Scotland we could facilitate women re-entering the workforce and lift more families out of poverty, allowing families the option of a work-life balance that best works for them. By putting the needs of the child first and focusing on gender equality, it is possible to maintain standards of living for young families, generate extra tax revenue and reduce reliance on welfare.

Society ultimately becomes better off. If children are well cared for and well educated, kept out of poverty, they in turn will contribute more to society as adults. Deprive children, impoverish them both economically and culturally, and they will face an uphill struggle regarding education and career options.

The media may attack those who have fallen though the gaps as scroungers, but if the state gave every child a fair start in life and a decent standard of living through better provision, there would in turn be less reliance on benefits.

Sanction a single mother on benefits, rob her and her children of food, heating and hope, and the state hasn’t just punished her, but her children too and prevented the whole family from climbing out of poverty. Ultimately society is punished. In Scotland I believe we are waking up to the concept of social justice and I hope we will learn from our Nordic neighbours.

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