Why does Sweden have the issues we have today?

Miltton’s Senior Advisor Niklas Nordström writes a weekly newsletter in Swedish about current events happening in Sweden and around the world. Here’s an English translation of the latest news but click here if you’re interested in subscribing to the original one.

I wanted to devote this blog to a longer discussion of the problems Sweden is facing, what the causes are and what different ways forward might look like.

The population in Sweden has grown too fast

We don’t need to argue whether we are for or against immigration. People think differently and it shows in the popularity of political parties. The fact is that in the last twelve years Sweden granted over a million people different types of residence permits.

Sweden has grown very fast in a short period of time: when Sweden reached nine million inhabitants, it had taken 35 years to grow from eight to nine million, and this was mainly due to surplus births. In 2004, Sweden had nine million inhabitants and it took only 13 years to reach 10 million. Today we already have 10.5 million inhabitants.

In less than 20 years, we have thus grown by 1.5 million inhabitants. This creates major problems in adapting and managing such a large population growth in such a small country.

Many of the problems we see today with unemployment, exclusion, poor school results, serious crime, staff shortages, housing shortages and much more are related to this. The lead times alone for building kindergartens, schools, housing, training and so forth show that it´s impossible for a society to adjust in such a short time.

It takes many years for an immigrant adult to become educated and employable. The statistics speak for themselves: it takes eight years before half of the refugees have entered employment.

This means the other half of the group, who have yet to start working, continue to need various forms of support and benefits.

The Swedish model requires people to work

It’s in this light that we should view the debate that in fact very many adults aren’t able to support themselves, a topic that came up in the Swedish general election campaigns last autumn. One report says that as many as 1.3 million people of working age living in Sweden cannot provide for themselves.

The Swedish model of high taxes and generous welfare, where most things are free such as school, university, healthcare and care for the elderly, requires that adults work and pay taxes. If this does not happen, the whole foundation of that model is challenged. In order to see the problems we have, it is crucial for Sweden to take a deep breath and think through what the next 20 years should look like, so that the model itself can survive.

Sweden had largely eradicated the poverty that characterised the country a century years ago, but now there are worrying figures that show poverty is on the rise. This is also linked to the high level of immigration, as this is the group that´s clearly over-represented among those defined as poor.

But that said, it’s also possible to question those who warn of growing inequality. Sweden remains one of the most equal countries in the world thanks to its social security systems, as was explained in an interesting podcast on Kvartal if you want to listen.

The politicians’ expansive promises will not be credible

We all need to understand that more and more of our common resources will go to sorting out the problems resulted from growing so fast in such a short time. Crime is one example where a growing part of the tax revenue will go to dealing with the consequences of criminal activity. The health service will have to spend more time caring for people who have been injured, the police will continue to grow, judicial system will require more resources and social and youth services will have to be reformed.

But other areas haven’t kept up with Sweden’s rapid growth either. Infrastructure is such a sector, and I’m therefore not surprised that the government chose to completely abandon the high-speed rail project. There’s simply not enough money to do everything, and the maintenance of existing infrastructure is seriously falling behind.

Adding to this the need for Sweden to upgrade its defence, health care, schools and care for the elderly, and we all understand that this is no time for sweeping promises about anything else. The citizens of Sweden will simply have to realise that for the foreseeable we’ll have to deal with both the consequences of strong population growth – and the fact that much has been historically neglected.

That is why we should all be sceptical when promises are made, such as sharply reducing the tax on fuel. No government will give up the money that the tax on petrol and diesel generates. In other words, think more critically when tax cuts or generous reforms are promised. This isn’t possible if too many adults are out of work, and there are so many deficiencies in the social construction that need to be repaired.

What conclusions can be drawn from the recent resignation of a State Secretary?
The Prime Minister’s State Secretary PM Nilsson resigned in the end of January due to unlawfully fishing eel and lying about it to the authorities. It’s not surprising that this happened in the end, as it will be a major uphill struggle for both Nilsson and the government.

Apart from that, we can wonder if there are any other conclusions to be made regarding the enforcement of laws and regulations and, not least, the clash between city dwellers who visit the countryside and those who live and work there. Because of the Swedish Centre Party’s dwindling numbers, the recent elections illustrated that many people in rural and small urban areas feel forgotten by the parties, the state and the authorities in general.

If there can be any constructive debate after what has happened, I hope it’s about how those who try to live and work in the countryside feel. It’s not an easy environment to work in. Many are the authorities, that hang over the shoulders of those who try to develop and live in the countryside. Per-Ola Olsson is an editorial writer who regularly puts into words how life and politics work for those who don’t live in the city.

Having said all that, we should all remember that according to various measurements, Sweden is one of the best countries in the world to live in. However, we are facing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society to its core and cannot be ignored.

Niklas Nordström is a Senior Advisor at Miltton Sweden. He has spent around 150 000 hours of his life thinking and acting in politics. The remaining time is spent with his hunting labrador Boss.

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