Message-ID: <>
Date: Mon, 2 Nov 1998 18:13:48 -0800
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Franklin Wayne Poley <culturex@VCN.BC.CA>
Subject: FWD:FW: Pity the Norwegian Working Class (fwd)

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Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 12:35:17 +1100 (EST)
From: Bill Bartlett <>
Subject: FWD:FW: Pity the Norwegian Working Class

Norway Pays a Price for Family Values

By T. R. Reid, Washington Post, Sunday 1 November 1998; Page A26

Parents Receive Stipends To Stay Home With Children

OSLO, Norway—Like countless other women around the world, Suranhild Aenstad decided to leave her job and stay at home after her first child was born. Unlike most other young mothers, though, she paid no financial penalty for choosing family over office.

Aenstad was hired by the Norwegian government for a new line of work—staying home to raise her own daughter. The state paid the new mother a yearly salary of $18,800, or 80 percent of what she made as a secretary. With the savings on clothes and commuting, Aenstad came out slightly ahead.

Last spring the baby, Serine—a buoyant blue-eyed blond with a smile as brilliant as the autumn sun glistening on the Oslofjord beneath her nursery window—celebrated her first birthday. At that point, Suranhild Aenstad turned the household duties over to her husband, Martin, who quit his job to stay home. So now it is he who receives a monthly paycheck from the government for raising his own child.

Politicians in Norway love to talk about family values, and in that they're no different from politicians almost everywhere else. What's different here is that Norway has put its money where its mouth is.

The United States pays a small percentage of its mothers a monthly stipend to help them raise and feed their children. These payments carry a stigma. They are known as welfare, and generally are available only to mothers who prove they can't find work. The Clinton administration and most states have programs in place to reduce the number of welfare mothers, and governors routinely boast about how much their welfare rolls are being reduced.

Norway, in contrast, treats the monthly payment to parents as a salary. Income and social security taxes are withheld, just as with any paycheck. The payment is designed for working parents, to encourage them to leave the job for a while and raise their children. The government takes pride in statistics showing that the number of recipients has been growing rapidly.

We have made a fairly basic decision—although, let's admit it, it took us years to do it, said Valgard Haugland, the leader of Norway's Christian Democratic Party and the minister of Children and Family Affairs.

We have decided that raising a child is real work. And that this work provides value for the whole society. And that the society as a whole should pay for this valuable service.

It should be noted that this kind of thing is easier for Norway than it might be for nations facing tighter budget strictures. This beautiful northern land, where the icy fiords wrap their deep blue fingers around leafy green hills, is the world's second-largest exporter of oil, after Saudi Arabia. Even with the past year's drop in petroleum prices, Norway has run up a big budget surplus while expanding its generous network of cradle-to-grave state benefits.

Norway's package of parental payments has been put together gradually. More than a decade ago, the government established the initial maternity right, which pays a parent who leaves a job to raise the baby 80 percent of his or her regular salary. This program gradually has been extended, and now lasts for the first 12 months of the baby's life. When the year is up, the custodial parent has a legal right to return to work—not just any job, but the same job, with at least the same pay as before.

This is wonderful for me, that I could be home with Serine and know that my career is protected, said Suranhild Aenstad, 24, who was a secretary in a downtown office when Serine was born.

But it is not perfect. Women can suffer. We all know that some companies don't hire a woman if they expect you are going to take maternity leave in a few years.

Haugland, the cabinet minister who is known as the mother of parental payments because of her support for the proposal, agrees that this can be a problem. Of course we have made it illegal for an employer to turn down a young applicant for this reason, she said. But how do you prove it? They will never say they rejected somebody because of maternity leave.

At the moment, however, losing out on a job is not a serious risk. Norway's labor market is so tight—with the economy strong and unemployment at 3 percent—that most employers will take any qualified worker, no matter what the parental future might bring.

While the first-year maternity right is accepted across the board in political circles, there has been more controversy about the new parental payment plan, which pays for child care beyond the first year of life. As of this fall, the government is paying custodial parents during a baby's second year. Funding for a third-year parental payment is proposed in the 1999 budget pending before the Storting, or parliament.

The parental payment is considerably smaller than the first-year maternity right, paying a little less than $5,000 per year. Parents who don't choose to take it can go back to work and send their children to government-subsidized day care, which is known here as kindergarten. The law also says that medical treatment is free for the first seven years of a child's life—but that's not such a big deal in a country where medical care is subsidized and patients generally pay no more than $10 for a doctor visit.

Almost all political parties in Norway are more liberal than the major U.S. parties. But those on the left, by Norwegian standards, have objected to the budget proposal that would extend the parental payment to a child's third year.

This is partly because the more liberal parties have an ideological commitment to conformity, and they say children should be sent to licensed day care facilities instead of being raised at home.

In addition, the liberals object to the notion of paying parents who choose not to take a job outside the home. When parliament was debating the issue this month, Thorbjorn Jagland, the Labor Party leader and former prime minister, complained that the parental payment is a giveaway. Why would you pay somebody who does not hold down a job? he demanded.

Sitting in his cozy apartment here, with 18-month-old Serine bouncing happily on his knee, Martin Aenstad begs to differ. I've had jobs, and now I'm raising my daughter. And I can tell you that being a house-father is hard work.

At least when I was on the job, they gave me a lunch break. If Serine is hungry or crying or has a full diaper—well, you try telling her that Daddy needs a lunch break.