For many progressives, Sweden is the closest thing we have to the Promised Land. Among other things, the Swedish welfare state has done an exceptional job of fostering an egalitarian income distribution and minimizing poverty. The generosity of the Swedish welfare state has led some progressives to claim that the impact of recent family changes — e.g., increases in divorce, single parenthood, and nonmarital childbearing — has been minimal for Swedish children.
Last year, for instance, Paul Krugman argued that family structure didn’t seem to matter much for Swedish kids, “perhaps because the welfare state is so strong” there. The thinking here is that nontraditional families need not harm children’s well-being so long as parents are guaranteed a decent income, as they are in Sweden.
There is only one problem with this theory: It doesn’t capture the emotional and social costs of family instability and single parenthood that play out above and beyond the economic toll associated with family breakdown. Because, even in Sweden, the evidence continues to mount that an intact family is best for children.
For instance, as I noted last year, a 2003 Lancet study of the entire population of Swedish children found that “children in single-parent families were about twice as likely to suffer from serious psychological problems, drug use, alcohol abuse, and attempted suicide, compared to children in two-parent families.”
Now, there is more evidence that family structure matters, even in Sweden. A new study of divorce (which included separation among the many cohabiting parents in the country) finds that young adults from divorced homes are 48 percent more likely to experience psychological problems than their peers from intact families. In 2000, 17 percent of young adults from divorced homes were depressed, compared to 9 percent from intact families; and 20 percent from divorced homes had “nervous trouble” compared to 12 percent from intact families.
The link between divorce and young adults’ psychological problems in Sweden is largely accounted for by the family dissension and, to a lesser extent, economic hardship associated with a divorce. So, yes, as Krugman might suspect, money matters. But the dissension associated with a family breakup was more important than the money in explaining why divorce was linked to psychological problems among Swedish young adults.
Finally, the study also found evidence that the divorce–psychological problems link for individual young adults may be weakening in Sweden. Good news? Not necessarily. Research indicates that marriage continues to lose ground and family instability continues to advance in the Land of the Midnight Sun. One study found, for instance, that the percent of children exposed to parental divorce or separation rose by more than one-third from the 1980s to the 1990s, from 20 percent to 27 percent. Moreover, according to the new divorce study, “psychological problems have increased substantially among young Swedes during recent decades” among young adults from both divorced and intact homes.
It’s possible that any Swedish spike in psychological problems among young adults is linked to the kind of economic changes now facing the country: economic globalization, the economic downturn, etc. Or they could be linked to some other social change.
But it’s also possible that the rising tide of family instability in Sweden is exacting a psychic toll on Swedish young adults in general. In other words, if family effects are not just individual but also communal, then even young adults from intact families may suffer from the fact that fewer of their friends and family members are enjoying loving, committed relationships that go the distance. After all, today’s young Swedish men and women may worry that a similar, unstable fate awaits them.
W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. An earlier version of this article appeared in www.family-studies.org. Follow on Twitter: WilcoxNMP.