Millennial moms are choosing to stay home in greater numbers than their immediate predecessors. Forty-two percent of married mothers with children under the age of six are not gainfully employed, an era high. These women are also largely part of a generation which is asking, quite rightly, why the United States has failed to provide the comprehensive social safety-net seen in other Western, industrialized countries.
They want what their European counterparts have: single-payer healthcare, affordable (or even free) higher education, and dependable services for societies most vulnerable. To achieve this, however, those millennial moms get to get back to work. Because to live the Nordic Dream, children cannot be an excuse to avoid employment.
Of course, the stay-at-home mom hurriedly driving to soccer practice and piano lessons is such a staple of American Sentimentality that the idea this selfless woman is actually skirting her responsibilities is political and cultural anathema, so we talk about taxing the wealthy and corporations instead. But here is the dirty secret: taxing the dastardly 1 %, while a lot of fun, actually is not the key to Swedish-style success. The top marginal effective income tax rates vary widely among Nordic nations. That number is 60.4% in Denmark, but only 39% in Norway. And corporate tax rates are actually higher in the US than in Denmark, Norway or Sweden. Iceland’s corporate tax rate is 20%, one of the lowest in the world.
What does uniformly distinguish these countries from the US, however, is the real secret ingredient of Nordic Socialist Paradise: Nearly full workforce participation, even by mothers with young children. This is sustained by policy and societal expectations and is essential to the success of a system where so much is provided.
One such provision is parental leave. The extended maternity leave provided in the Nordic states is enough to make any American parent envious. Have a baby in Norway and take nine months before you come back to the office. Sweden gives you seventeen months to adjust to motherhood at 80% of your salary. At the same time, the unstated understanding that comes with this extended period of paid time off for new babies is that at its end, moms will return to work.
This they do, at significantly higher numbers than their American peers. The 70% of American mom who eventually go back to work after baby are joined by 86% percent of Swedish mothers, 83% of Norwegian mothers, and 90% of Icelandic mothers. Of course, a Swedish or Danish mother can expect to find subsidized childcare and relative pay equality when she returns. Here is a situation where policy is informed by social opinion which in turn shapes public policy. While only 1 in 5 American women disagreed that “being a housewife is just as fulfilling as working for pay”, nearly half of all Swedish women did. If 80% of Americans believe that there is no significant shift in the quality of her life when a woman forgoes work, where is the motivation for providing services to facilitate that work?
Moreover, as long as we glamorize and sentimentalize the self-sacrificing housewife, things like subsidized childcare, and even pay equality, will seem even to progressives like necessary evils, better stamped out by a wage system that allows for families to survive with one, ideally male, wage earner, a state of affairs romanticized in political speeches and internet memes.
Which is why our first step to building a progressive America must be to increase tax revenue in the most proven method there is: putting stay-at-home moms back to work. Because the simple fact is that women who stay at home to keep house and taxi children are every bit as much skirting their civic responsibility as the CEO who stashes money in the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes. And the two act for similar reasons. Namely, these women, like their Caribbean banking counterparts, are choosing the narrow interests of their family over the wider interests of the community and nation. Yet still, in many ways, these women’s actions are worse. While the creative accounting of the 1% undeniably benefits to their families and children, increasing amounts of research suggest that having mom at home does children more harm than good, especially daughters who are likely to achieve less than their peers with working moms.
A self-interested choice that does not even achieve any real self-interest is an obviously bad one. If we want an America with healthcare and education for all, then we all must do more than bake cookies. The Nordic countries have learned this and now are the models of American stump speeches. Theirs is a model of full-participation and no one can or should be able to sentimentalize their way out of that participation.