Last week, the president of the United States wondered aloud why America takes so many immigrants from poor countries (lest you forget, shithole was his term) and so few from places like, say, Norway. The comment was widely seen as crude, ungenerous, un-American, and more than faintly racist; it also displayed surprising ignorance of the many reasons why Norwegians of all people might choose to stay put. Following news of Trump’s reported (and disputed) remark, commentators pointed out that thanks to oil wealth and generous social policies, Norway ranks as the world’s happiest country.
As the Atlantic pointed out, once-poor Norway now “has higher life expectancy at birth than the U.S., lower rates of infant mortality, low unemployment, and access to the European Union’s labor market.” It also ranks first in prosperity and political and press freedom—much higher than the United States.
Somehow, Norway looks even better from a working parent’s perspective: Norway has one of the world’s most generous paid leave plans for new parents, who, together, are entitled to roughly a year of paid leave after the birth of a child. Like a growing number of countries, particularly (but not only) in Scandinavia and Europe, Norway ensures that children can be cared for by parents in their vulnerable early months and that families don’t have to face poverty or unemployment as a result.
More than that, Norway requires that a certain percentage of leave be taken by fathers if a family wants to qualify for the full leave period. This “daddy days” approach is backed by social science showing that men who take paternity leave are more likely to share parenting and housework, not only at birth but going forward. Paid paternity leave permanently recalibrates the household balance of labor, enabling mothers to stay in the workforce and making women more likely to work full time. Norway also provides subsidized child care and encourages a corporate culture where afternoon meetings are scheduled with pickup times in mind. The country has a female prime minister—Erna Solberg—and a commitment to gender parity: There is a quota system in which public companies must have 40 percent board representation from both genders.
Which is not to say that everything is Disney-perfect, as members of the Better Life Lab team at New America (myself included) learned on a fact-finding mission hosted by the Norwegian Royal Consulate several years ago. (Norway’s former General Consul in New York Elin Bergithe Rognlie is a past member of the advisory council of the Better Life Lab at New America, though she had no role in the research for or writing of this post.*) There is still some workforce gender segregation—women tend to be better represented in the public sector than the private one, and there’s a gender pay gap of about 15 percent. And no global society is immune from violence and social ills, nor from xenophobia, white supremacy, and neo-Nazi adherents. The 2011 mass shooting of teenagers at a summer camp by a homegrown far-right terrorist left permanent trauma. (There are also social democracy policies that would make most Americans squirm; neighbors and others can request to see your tax return, meaning everybody knows what you make.)
But the country is committed to gender fairness and family life. All of these policies work together to keep women engaged in the economy; Norway has one of the world’s highest labor participation rates for women, a fact that, some argue, powers the economy even more than oil reserves do.
In all of these things, Norway is in sync with many other European countries—unusually generous, maybe, but not all that different from, say, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, or France, all of which subscribe to the notion that quality child care and paid leave are services a good government should provide. There are even countries, like Estonia, that are more generous in the amount of paid leave they provide. All these countries are notably distinct from the United States, which offers no universal child care, no universal early education, and no universal right to health care. The closest thing America has to federally mandated leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act, an outdated law that permits American workers in larger workplaces to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for a child or parent. We have no guarantee of paid parental leave—not a single day, including the day a woman gives birth. Unsurprisingly, we also have shockingly high infant mortality rates.
Indeed, as long as we’re evaluating countries from the point of view of working parents and children, the real news is that even the so-called “shithole” countries have better parental leave policies than the United States. It’s a wonder that any working parent wants to come to America from anywhere. One of the places Trump disparaged was Haiti, a country that not only has contributed many literary and political notables to American life but also, for all its economic challenges, offers paid leave to its own working mothers. Another target of his contempt, El Salvador, offers paid leave to mothers and fathers alike. Trump also cast aspersions on Africa, a continent in which virtually every single country provides paid leave to mothers. Many African countries also guarantee some paid leave to fathers, among them Algeria, Chad, Mali, Kenya, Togo, Congo, and Tanzania, as shown in this great map by UCLA’s WORLD Policy Analysis Center.
Around the world, emerging and struggling economies have achieved widespread buy-in to the idea that infant health, family life, and national prosperity benefit when mothers—and, ideally fathers—can take time to nurture a newborn without worrying about losing a job. And all these countries seem to have accepted the fact that women are in the workplace to stay and that helping women to do so also helps the economy.
Only a tiny handful of countries, such as Suriname and Papua New Guinea, provide no paid leave to parents. The mighty and prosperous United States is the only wealthy economy with this distinction. In his next meeting to hash out immigration policy, the president might well ask why American working parents don’t emigrate to Estonia or Japan or Canada or, especially, a country like Finland, where the government sends every newborn a “baby box” containing clothes, bedding, medicine, diapers and other essentials (the box itself serves as a bassinet) as a way to encourage infant health and well-being regardless of ethnicity or income level.
The real question is when the United States will catch up to the rest of the world in the domain of family policy. There is more than one way to be poor, after all, and spiritual poverty, as evidenced by our approach toward workers and their families is, unfortunately, where America leads the pack.
*Correction, Jan. 18, 2018: Due to an editing error, this post originally said Elin Bergithe Rognlie is Norway’s general consul in New York. In fact, she is the former general consul.
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