The Agenda

Tino Sanandaji on Swedish Family Structure

I was very pleased to see that Tino Sanandaji, a Swedish economist based in the U.S., has written a post on Swedish family structure that draws on Swedish sources:

In secular Sweden, family traditions differ from those of the United States. Cohabitation (“samboförhållande”) is formally recognized treated by the law as virtually identical to marriage. Swedish couples typically cohabitate, get children and only then get marry. …

[O]nly ten percent of children in Sweden are born to couples who are not either married or co-habituating at the time of birth. Even that exaggerates, since many couples start cohabitation after birth. Obviously what we are interested in about is the child having two parents, not if they are in a christian marriage or secular Swedish cohabitation. Only 3 percent(!) of children in Sweden are born to single mothers. Swedes can afford to be so politically liberal ideologically because they are so socially conservative in their private behavior.

In fairness, when you read that half of Hispanics children are born out of wedlock, that too includes cohabitation. Accounting for later separation or divorce, according to the Census Bureau18.7 percent of Swedish households with children are single-parent households (this share is lower among ethnic Swedes). Among Hispanics in the United States by contrast 37 percent of households with children are single-parent households. 

Later on, Sanandaji cites the research of economist Anders Björklund, who has found the following:

Comparing the United States and Sweden is interesting because both family structure and public policy environments in the two countries differ significantly. Family structure could potentially have a less negative effect in Sweden than in the United States because of the extensive social safety net provided by that country. We find, however, the associations between family structure and children’s outcomes to be  remarkably similar in the United States and Sweden even though the policy and social environments differ between the two countries; living in a non-intact family is negatively related to child outcomes. [Emphasis added]

And so Sanandaji draws the following conclusion:

In both Sweden and the United States, children of single-mothers earn less and are less likely to go to college. We don’t know for sure to what extent this is caused by single-parenthood itself or by confounding effects. In both countries single-parenthood is correlated with less social capital and other problems that both cause single-parenthood itself and other undesirable outcomes. This does not change the fact that population groups characterized by single parenthood have worse outcomes even in welfare states. 

Suffice it to say, this isn’t the last word on the matter. There is near-invincible confidence in the potential of the Swedish social model to mitigate the consequences of family breakdown in some quarters, and no doubt some observers will conclude that it is the Swedish welfare state itself that holds families together. This is despite the fact that economic security tends to reduce the urgency of maintaining a two-earner household, a fact which suggests that there is some deeper cultural dynamic at work.  


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