Life In Sweden The Welfare State Has A Price Tag

Posted: January 16, 1987

STOCKHOLM — I went to a drugstore here last Wednesday to get something for a cold. But I left right away because there were 15 people in line and I didn't have the time to wait.

But maybe it was worth standing there for those Swedish citizens holding doctors' prescriptions. The most any of them could pay was $9 for a year's supply of whatever they needed. They would pay nothing if a doctor had certified their condition was "chronic and serious."

Such is life in the world's greatest democratic welfare state: lines and waiting lists, and benefits and taxes an American has trouble imagining, much less fully comprehending.

First, the benefits. In addition to subsidized or free prescription drugs, a factory worker earning $13,000 a year (a little below the average here) with a wife and two children could get:

* A subsidized apartment for $158 per month, a "study allowance" of $1,450 per year for the children, and another $1,100 a year plus 12 months' leave at two-thirds pay if he had a third child.

* Day care for all the children for $200 per month.

* Five weeks of paid vacation, 60 sick days a year at 90 percent pay, free hospitalization, and doctors' house calls at $9 per visit.

* Free university tuitions (if his children are smart enough to pass rigid exams) and, one day, a pension that will be at least two-thirds his pay during his best earning years.

Somebody has to pay for all that, of course, and our man will pay something like:

* Income taxes at a rate above 30 percent.

* Value-added taxes of 23.5 percent on every purchase, including food.

* Property taxes of 1.5 percent to 5 percent of assessed value each year.

* And, one day, inheritance taxes of probably 40 percent if he leaves anything to his children.

In addition, our worker's employer must pay $6,500 a year in social fees and insurance above his salary, and, then, corporate income taxes of 52 percent. That is, if he doesn't work for the government itself, which 40 percent of Swedes do.

He, our factory worker, is the kind of person that the Swedish welfare state is designed to benefit. Section I of the Social Service Act of 1982 defines Sweden's goals:

"Public social services are to be established on the basis of democracy and solidarity, with a view toward promoting: economic and social security, equality of living conditions and active participation in community life."

"Equality of living conditions" is the key phrase. Everyone the same. That means if in some way our worker's taxable income jumped to more than $30,000 a year, he would have to pay about 80 percent of it in income taxes.

If what he left his children (or tried to) was corporate stocks, his inheritance tax could be 100 percent. And, it is true that because of unintended quirks in Swedish laws, some high earners - authors, entertainers, athletes - are sometimes assessed income taxes that total more than 100 percent of their taxable earnings.

That is, roughly, how it works here. Swedes believe it is the just way. They are freely willing to accept extraordinary government control over their lives - government medical boards decide if our worker can get on the waiting lists for heart surgery - in a self-satisfied quest for equality.

It would never work in the United States.

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