Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is a big believer in the “American Dream,” and she thinks it’s a lot easier to achieve now in her country than in the United States.
“We feel that the Nordic model is a success story,” said Marin, who became prime minister in December at age 34, making her briefly the youngest world leader (she lost that title in January when 33-year-old Sebastian Kurz returned to power as Austrian chancellor).
Marin is hardly the first to claim that it’s easier to live the “American Dream” in Nordic countries. British politician and former Labour Party leader Edward Miliband said it in 2012. A New York Times opinion piece last year dubbed Finland a “capitalist paradise.” And presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-declared “democratic socialist,” has often said that the United States should be more like Scandinavia.
“Countries like Denmark and Sweden do very well,” Sanders said in Iowa in April. He praised them for having an “economy in which you have wealth being created by the private sector, but you have a fair distribution of that wealth.”
On Twitter, Sanders also praised Finland’s health-care system, especially its manageable childbirth cost.
As the U.S. 2020 presidential election heats up, there’s likely to be renewed attention to how the United States compares to other countries, including Finland. On many of President Trump’s preferred metrics — the unemployment rate, the stock market and economic growth (GDP) — the United States typically performs better. But on rankings of happiness, social mobility, health care and child care, Finland comes out on top.
Marin told The Washington Post, “We have a very good education system. We have a good health-care and social welfare system that allows anybody to become anything. This is probably one of the reasons Finland gets ranked the happiest country in the world.”
When the United States vs. Finland/Denmark/Sweden debate escalated on the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign trail, Democrat Hillary Clinton was quick to say in a CNN debate with Sanders, “We are not Denmark.” Many Republicans are far more dismissive of the Nordic model, and Trump regularly tweets about how bad he thinks socialism is.
Finland is a country of 5.5 million people, close in population size to the state of Minnesota, but, geographically, Finland is nearly the size of California. The United States has 329 million people and about 29 times the land.
“Of course, every country’s situation is different, every country’s political atmosphere is different,” Marin said. But she emphasized again, “The American Dream can be achieved in Finland for everyone.”
Here’s a look how the United States compares to Finland on several economic and well-being indicators.
Happiness ― Finland is the happiest country in the world, according to the World Happiness Report, which looks at a variety of factors, including social support, economic growth, life expectancy, freedom and generosity. The United States came in at No. 19. Last year’s report noted, “The years since 2010 have not been good ones for happiness and well-being among Americans.” It cited widespread addiction problems and unhealthy digital media use as reasons for alarm.
Social Mobility ― Nordic countries are at the top of the World Economic Forum’s Social Mobility Index, which looks at how people born across the income spectrum fare in health, educational achievement and income. The United States ranks No. 27 — behind not only Finland, but also Germany, Canada, France, Japan, Australia and other nations. Social mobility in the United States has been falling. Widely cited research by Harvard professor Raj Chetty shows that back in 1940, more than 90 percent of children born in the United States that year went on to earn more than their parents. That benchmark has fallen to 50 percent for children born in the early 1980s.
Unemployment ― One of the metrics where the United States looks better than Finland is the unemployment rate. The U.S. unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, a half-century low, and most Americans agree it is easier to find a job now. The unemployment rate in Finland is 6 percent. That said, the share of the population that works is slightly higher in Finland (66.2 percent) than in the United States (63.2 percent).
Life expectancy ― According to the World Health Organization, Finland ranks 21st for life expectancy, with an average of 81.4 years. The United States ranks No. 34, with a life expectancy of 78.5. Finland also has much lower maternal death rates during childbirth compared to the United States, according to the CIA Factbook.
Health care cost ― The U.S. health-care system spends more than $10,000 per person per year. Finland’s system spends $4,000 per person per year, according to the Health System Tracker. In Finland, health care is “free” because it is paid for by the government. There are some complaints of uneven care in Finland because the system is largely run at the municipal level, which means health-care services can vary. There are also concerns about how to continue funding the Finnish system with an aging population. Still, there is overwhelming satisfaction with Finland’s system, versus a slim majority of Americans (52 percent) who say they are satisfied with the quality of care in the United States.
Economic growth (GDP) — The United States has a faster-growing economy. The IMF projects 1.5 percent GDP for Finland in 2020 versus 2 percent for the United States. In recent years, the Finnish economy has been growing 1.3 to 1.7 percent, while the United States has averaged 2.3 percent during this expansion.
Homeownership ― Homeownership is higher in Finland (72.7 percent) than in the United States (63.7 percent), according to Urban Institute data from 2015. Homeownership dropped sharply in the United States after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, with many people losing their homes to foreclosure. There was an especially large drop in African American homeownership. But even before the crisis, the United States had never topped 70 percent homeownership.
Child care cost ― For a typical middle-class couple with two kids, child-care costs are much higher in the United States than in Finland. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 41 percent of pay goes toward child care in the United States versus 17 percent in Finland. The United States actually has the highest costs among the countries studied, while Finland is just below average. Government subsidizes child care in Finland, and there is a cap on how much even wealthier families have to pay.
Educational achievement ― There are several ways to look at educational achievement. A global test given to 15-year-olds found that Finnish teenagers performed better on reading, math and science exams than their U.S. peers, somewhat backing up the Finnish prime minister’s claim of educational quality for all. That said, according to OECD data, the United States has a higher share of its population with college or advanced degrees than Finland does. This might sound surprising, because college is free for Finnish students, but the higher-education system is selective, with a lot of Finnish students rejected, because there isn’t enough funding for all.
Taxes ― Finns pay much higher taxes to fund so many government benefits. Finland routinely ranks as one of the top tax collection countries in the OECD, while the United States is routinely toward the bottom. In 2018, a single worker earning a typical middle-class wage paid about 30 percent of their income in taxes in Finland versus 24 percent in the United States, according to OECD data. (That figure includes the federal income tax and payroll taxes such as Social Security that are paid by workers.)
Poverty― Finland has one of the lowest poverty rates in the world. It is about half of the U.S. rate. The official U.S. poverty rate in 2018 was 11.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census, compared to 6.3 percent in Finland, according to the OECD.
Stock market performance ― There are a lot of ways to judge stock market performance, but the United States wins this one hands down. In the past year, the popular S&P 500 Index of U.S. companies has gained more than 21 percent while the OMX Helsinki 25, a popular Finnish index, is up a bit shy of 13 percent. But far more of the world’s most significant and highest-performing companies trade on the U.S. markets. Looking at the past decade, the Finnish stock market is up about 150 percent versus a roughly 250 percent return for U.S. stocks.
Ease of doing business ― The United States is usually at or near the top of lists for global competitiveness and entrepreneurship. For example, the United States is No. 1 on the Global Entrepreneurship Index while Finland ranks 12th. Similarly, the United States ranks 12th while Finland is 20th in the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, which takes into account open markets, regulatory environment taxes and rule of law.
Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.