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Sweden : Sweden: Successful reconciliation of work and family life

Swedish parents are among the EU’s most successful in balancing work and family responsibilities. Female and maternal employment rates are among the highest in the EU, and child poverty is among the lowest. The country’s family policy is aimed at supporting the dual-earner family model and ensuring the same rights and obligations regarding family and work for both women and men. Generous spending on family benefits, flexible leave and working hours for parents with young children and affordable, high-quality childcare are the main factors for success. The aim of the Swedish financial family policy is to contribute to improved conditions for good living standards for all families with children, increased freedom of choice and empowerment of parents.

Largest proportion of working mothers in the EU

At 71.8% in 2012, the employment rate of women was close to that of men (75.6%) and well above the Lisbon target  for female employment (60%). Measured at 76.8% in 2012, the employment rate of mothers of children under six is the third highest in the EU. At the same time, at 1.9 children per woman in 2012, the fertility rate is relatively high compared with other EU countries.

A high proportion of women use flexible working arrangements. Female and male part-time employment rates stand at 39.6% and 14.6% respectively, compared to the EU averages of 32.5% for women and 9.4% for men. Women work on average five hours per week less than men, a smaller difference than elsewhere in the EU. At 15.8%, The gender pay gap  in Sweden is lower than the EU average of 16.2%.

Generous and flexible leave schemes

Sweden has a highly developed and flexible parental leave scheme  pdfthat allows and encourages both parents to spend time with their children. The mother and the father are together entitled to up to 16 months paid leave per child. Of this, 13 months are paidat 80% of the most recent income up to a ceiling of approximately 444,000 SEK (€51,100) per year in 2014 and the remaining three months are paid at a flat rate of 180 SEK (€21) per day.

Each parent has a personal, non-transferable entitlement to two months of paid parental leave (of the total 16 months). The remaining 12 months can be freely shared between parents. The right to be absent from work full time is restricted to the child’s first 18 months. Thereafter parents who want to reduce working hours or be on full leave must use parental benefit days to ensure such a right to parental leave. Parents have the right to decrease their working time by up to 25% without using parental benefit days, until the child is eight years old or finishes the first year of school.

Despite the positive consequences of fathers’ involvement in childcare, the flexibility of the system in terms of who takes the leave, nevertheless results in the lion’s share of parental leave days being taken by mothers. Swedish fathers’ use of the total amount of parental benefit days is still considerably more than most EU Member States. Fathers used on average 96 days of parental benefit for children born in 2005, (mothers used on average 324 days). When the child turned eight and the right to use parental benefit ended, only ten percent of the children born in 2005 had a father that had not used a single day of parental benefit (for mothers the figure was 4%).

As an economic incentive for mothers and fathers to share childcare more equally the Swedish government introduced a ’Gender equality bonus’ in 2008. The bonus is linked to the take-up of parental benefit and it amounts to a maximum of 13,500 SEK (€1,570) per child.

The Swedish government introduced a new rule into its social insurance scheme in 2010 to help single parents who fall ill and cannot look after their child. The rule allows another insured person (i.e. a person legally living and/or working in Sweden) who forgoes paid work to receive temporary parental benefit to look after the child.

With the aim of making it clear that parental benefit is mainly intended for care when the child is young and the need for care is greatest, a new reform was adopted in 2014. For children born on or after 1 January 2014 the rule is that after the child’s fourth birthday a maximum of 96 days can be claimed for the child. These days can however be claimed until the child reaches twelve years instead of eight years as under the previous rules.

As of 1 January 2012 it is possible for a child’s parents to obtain parental benefit at the same time for 30 days during the child's first year of life in order to increase the parents’ freedom of choice.

High spending on family benefits

At around 3.1% of GDP, financial benefits for children and families  represent one of the highest shares in the EU (the EU average is 2.2% of GDP). Along with the high level of labour force participation, this is also seen as a major reason for low poverty among children. Sweden has one of the EU’s lowest child poverty rates  (19.4% in 2012) and was among the top-rated nations for child well-being in the 2007 UNICEF reportpdf.

In addition to parental benefits, a range of financial measureshave been introducedto reduce the financial burdens on parents raising children. They include:

  1. Pregnancy benefit payable for a maximum of 50 days at 80% of the mother’s most recent income to expectant mothers who are unable to work because of the physically demanding nature of their jobs;
  2. Temporary parental benefit paid at 80% of annual earnings for a sick child under the age of 12; 
  3. Child allowance amounting to SEK 1,050 (about €122) per month and per child with supplements for large families ranging from SEK 150 (about €17) for the second child to SEK 1250 (about €145) for the fifth and each additional child.

New provisions regarding the payment rules for child allowance entered into force on 1 March 2014. When parents have joint custody of a child, half of the child allowance is to be paid to each parent, if the parents have not reported who is to be the recipient. If the child resides alternately with both parents half of the child allowance is paid to each parent, if the parent who wants the benefit to be shared shows that it is probable that the child has an alternating residence. Today a majority of the benefits are paid to the mother, even if the child resides alternately with both parents, e.g. living every other week at each parent, which is a living arrangement which has become more common after a separation. Today about 35% of all children with separated parents reside alternately at their parents’ homes.

In order to increase family income the housing allowance for families with children was raised in both 2012 and 2014. Totally an investment of 1,7 billion SEK has been made. Housing allowance is a benefit for low-income families, which varies in level depending on household income. The amount received depends on income, housing costs, the size of the home and the number of children within the household. Individual income levels for both parents are subject to a ceiling, which in practice means that it is mostly single parents who receive the housing allowance. And since more women than men are single parents, it means in turn that more women than men receive it.

As from 1 July 2014 a so-called leisure time voucher was introduced in the Social Services Act. The voucher is payable to households with children dependent on social assistance. The support is granted to households with children attending grades 4 to 9 in elementary school and covers the costs for regular instructor-led leasure time activities. The maximum amount of the voucher is SEK 3000 per year and is administered by the local municipality.

Affordable and high-quality universal childcare

Public childcare is guaranteed to all parents and it operates on a whole-day basis: most childcare facilities are open from 6.30 a.m. until 18.30 p.m. Pre-school is free for children aged between three and six for up to 15 hours per week. Parental fees are directly proportional to parents’ income and inversely proportional to the number of children in a family. The fee can be up to 3% of the family’s monthly income, but no more than 1,260 SEK(about €146) per month. The parental fees cover, on average, only 11% of the real cost of a place in pre-school which means that the cost for childcare is heavily subsidised.

As a result, 51% of children under three and 95% of children between three and six are enrolled in formal childcare. These figures are well above the EU Barcelona targets  for childcare provision and the EU averages of 30% and 83% respectively. 

In 2008, the Swedish government introduced a child-raising allowance’  to allow for a smoother transition between parental leave and work. Applications for child-raising allowance can be made for children over the age of one but younger than three. The allowance is administered by local authorities and can be combined with paid employment but not with other social security benefits relating to unemployment, sickness, parenthood or pension. Amounting to 3,000 SEK(about €348) per month, it is paid to parents in connection with the parental leave period if the child is not enrolled in  public childcare.

In addition, the family policy reforms of  2008 aimed to enhance the educational quality of childcare and introduced a childcare voucher system to give more freedom of choice to parents regarding different types of childcare.

National strategy for developed parental support

In 2009 a national strategy for developing parental support was adopted. The overall objective of the strategy is that all parents should bebe offered parental support throughout the period the child is growing up and is aged 0–17. The parental support strategy aims to promote children's health and positive development through the parents and to maximise their protection from illness and social problems. The strategy emphasises that it is important that the values of the programmes are based on the UN convention on the rights of the child, and are based on gender equalityprimciples.

To achieve the overall objective of the strategy, the government has mandated the Swedish National Institute of Public Health (FHI) to allocate a total of SEK 130 million (about €15 million) in stimulus funds to local authorities and research institutes in order to stimulate local and regional parental support efforts and gain new expertise in this field. 19 local authorities have received stimulus funds and 50 others have indirectly benefited through collaboration with a local authority. In April 2012, the government allocated an additional SEK 2 million (about €232,000) to disseminate knowledge obtained from different parental support projects in the country.

The information in the country profile was last updated in September 2014.

A Committee  on  Financial Cooperation between Separated Parents

In 2009, the government set up the Committee on Financial Cooperation between Separated Parents. The aim was to determine what initiatives and changes in existing financial schemes are needed to improve cooperation between separated parents.

The occurrence of children alternating between both parents’ homes after a separation is increasing in Sweden, reaching numbers higher than 50% for children with recently divorced parents and for all children with separated parents a total of 35% (see enclosed report from Statistics Sweden with summary in english). The committee highlights this in the report, concluding that these changing patterns create a need for changes regarding the entitlements of family allowances. The committee proposed several amendments to existing benefits and schemes to improve cooperation, e.g. the reform mentioned above of new payment rules for child allowance, but also  changes in entitlement to  parental benefit, maintenance allowance, housing allowance and care allowance for sick and disabled children.