In Finland's Footsteps

Ready, set, go: A well-attended day care center in Kuhmo, part of an egalitarian educational system free to all Finns.
Ready, set, go: A well-attended day care center in Kuhmo, part of an egalitarian educational system free to all Finns. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Robert G. Kaiser
Sunday, August 7, 2005

Life in Finland, one of the world's best functioning welfare states and least known success stories, can be complicated. Consider the dilemma confronting parents looking for day care for a 4-year-old daughter in Kuhmo, a town of 10,000 near the middle of the country.

Should they put their child into the town nursery school, where she could spend her weekdays from 6:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. with about 40 other children, cared for by a 47-year-old principal with 20 years' experience, Mirsa Pussinen, as well as four teachers with master's degrees in preschool education, two teacher's aides and one cook? The girl would hear books read aloud every day, play games with numbers and the alphabet, learn some English, dig in the indoor sandbox or run around outside, sing and perform music, dress up for theatrical games, paint pictures, eat a hot lunch, take a nap if she wanted one, learn to play and work with others.

Or should that 4-year-old spend her days in home care? Most parents in Kuhmo choose this option, and put their children into the care of women such as Anneli Vaisanen, who has three or four kids in her home for the day. The 49-year-old Vaisanen doesn't have a master's, but she has received extensive training, has provided day care for two decades and has two grown children of her own. The kids in her charge do most of the things those at the center do, but with less order and organization. They also bake bread and make cakes.

How to decide? There's no financial difference; both forms of day care cost the parents nothing. There's no difference in the schooling that will follow day care -- all the kids in Kuhmo (and throughout Finland) will have essentially identical opportunities in Finnish schools, Europe's best. There is no "elite" choice, no working-class choice; everyone is treated equally.

It's a dilemma that American parents don't have a chance to confront. And it's a vivid example of the difference between what the Finns call a social democracyand our society. Finland is a leading example of the northern European view that a successful, competitive society should provide basic social services to all its citizens at affordable prices or at no cost at all. This isn't controversial in Finland; it is taken for granted. For a patriotic American like me, the Finns present a difficult challenge: If we Americans are so rich and so smart, why can't we treat our citizens as well as the Finns do?

Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services, from pregnancy to the end of life. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.

School choice: Finnish parents have the option of a home day care program like the one that Anneli Vaisanen, above, runs for three or four children, or the town nursery school where principal Mirsa Pussinen, below, oversees about 40 youngsters. Both options are free, financed by the hefty taxes than Finns pay for a wide range of social services.
School choice: Finnish parents have the option of a home day care program like the one that Anneli Vaisanen, above, runs for three or four children, or the town nursery school where principal Mirsa Pussinen, below, oversees about 40 youngsters. Both options are free, financed by the hefty taxes than Finns pay for a wide range of social services.(Lucian Perkins)
On the other hand, Finns live in smaller homes than Americans and consume a lot less. They spend relatively little on national defense, though they still have universal male conscription, and it is popular. Their per capita national income is about 30 percent lower than ours. Private consumption of goods and services represents about 52 percent of Finland's economy, and 71 percent of the United States'. Finns pay considerably higher taxes -- nearly half their national income is taken in taxes, while Americans pay about 30 percent on average to federal, state and local governments.

Should we be learning from Finland?

The question occurred to me repeatedly as I traveled around Finland this summer. Americans could easily get used to the sense of well-being that Finns get from their welfare state, which has effectively removed many of the tangible sources of anxiety that beset our society.

But the United States could not simply turn itself into another Finland. Too much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish circumstances. Finland is as big as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents -- fewer than metropolitan Washington. It is ethnically and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political class and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare.

For all of that, Finland doesn't feel like an entirely foreign place -- I thought I was on familiar ground. Finns obviously enjoy things we enjoy, from a good concert (rock, jazz or classical) and a good ice cream cone to a brisk walk on the beach. They are practical-minded experimenters and problem solvers.

One fundamental Finnish value sounds a lot like an American principle -- "to provide equal opportunities in life for everyone," as Pekka Himanen, a 31-year-old intellectual wunderkind in Helsinki, put it. Himanen, a product of Finnish schools who got his PhD in philosophy at 21, argues that Finland now does this much better than the United States, where he lived for several years while associated with the University of California in Berkeley.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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