Even in Sweden, the rich keep getting richer
City aims to put economic and health equality at heart of future plans, says mayor
Karl Möller seems an unlikely poster child for a war on inequality. He is the only man at one of Gothenburg’s newly opened family centres among a dozen women, each with a baby in her arms.
The 45-year-old is part of a citywide programme to mix social classes, genders and ethnicities and make Sweden’s second city a more equal place to live. “I’m not used to it, but it’s a good experience – quite opposite to the maledominated engineering workplaces I am accustomed to,” he says.
Sweden takes equality seriously: it is ranked first among 152 countries in Oxfam’s commitment to reducing inequality index and has long been regarded across the world as a paragon of fairness. Under the concept of
folkhemmet – “the people’s home” – in which the social democratic state was like a family, caring for all, it became one of the most egalitarian countries. Yet even Sweden has had to acknowledge an increasing problem with inequality, and make efforts to combat it.
“Growth in inequality since the 1980s has been the largest among all OECD countries,” says Per Molander, a former IMF adviser and the author of a recent history of inequality. “There are a lot of rhetorical agreement on equality; very few politicians would say they are against it because we have such a strong egalitarian tradition here. But there is a large gap between rhetoric and reality.”
Sweden has 178 krona billionaires (1bn krona is equivalent to £91.4m) – an increase of 22 since 2015 – who together own more than twice the annual budget of the Swedish state. The number of dollar millionaires is rising sharply too.
Meanwhile, the UN children’s agency Unicef reported that Sweden was on a “downward trajectory” in terms of the life chances for its poorest children. A Swede with a basic education can expect to live five years less than a university-educated compatriot, according to the country’s public health agency.
The roots of this shift go back to the 1980s, Molander says, when the Social Democrats began experimenting with free-market policies, but change accelerated after a deep economic crisis in the early 1990s. “There was a sort of despair,” Molander says. “The political energy to defend classical social democratic policies was simply not there.”
The centre-left pushed ahead with deregulation and privatisation while also introducing “free schools” with private providers. Swedish conservatives, in office from 2006-14, cut income, property and wealth taxes. Income from property and shares soared.
Despite three decades of deregulated markets, tax cuts and slimmed-down welfare, Sweden still has some of the most progressive taxation and spending policies. But where it really stands out, Oxfam’s research suggests, is in its redoubled efforts to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
The pendulum began to swing back in 2014 with the election of a centre-left coalition that set out to reverse “irresponsible tax cuts”. Helped by a booming economy, it has also increased benefits for unemployment, sickness and families with children, and declared that “avoidable health gaps must be closed within a generation”.
In Gothenburg, the mayor has made tackling inequality her top priority. “As a Social Democratic politician, you cannot have a bigger ambition than an equal society,” says Ann-Sofie Hermansson (pictured below). “It is about decency, but it is also good for the economy … If you increase equality, you get more trust and stronger growth: it’s a win-win situation.”
The gap between rich and poor in the city has almost quadrupled over two decades, according to a survey by the council. Its most shocking discovery was that people live nine years longer in affluent areas than in poorer ones.
Hermansson’s flagship programme, Equal Gothenburg, promises long-term investment. “For many years we have had projects to fix inequality,” she says. “We’d take some money, we’d have a project in the suburbs, and then the money ends and the project stops. The idea of Equal Gothenburg is no more small projects: we should think about equality all the time when we plan.”
Opposition to the programme is
‘As a Social Democratic politician, you cannot have a bigger ambition than an equal society’
muted; while some question equality for its own sake when jobs are in short supply, on the right of the city council, criticism is more about how than why.
“Gothenburg should be a cohesive city. But we have different means to reach that goal,” says David Lega, the leader of the city’s Christian Democrats. “To create a city that is equal it can’t be a side project, it needs to be in the foundations of the budget.”
The city will find itself in the European spotlight in November, when EU leaders gather there for a social summit for fair jobs and growth.
Many people in Sweden, too, believe there is nothing inevitable about the growing gap between rich and poor.
“It often boils down to resources – too few teachers, nurses, other professions. And if you want to fix that, it will cost money,” says Olle Lundberg, chair of the country’s Commission for Equity in Heath. “But there has been a change in political climate in Sweden. Now all parties are talking about inequality.”
The gap between rich and poor has almost quadrupled in Gothenburg in two decades, according to a council survey