Even in Swe­den, the rich keep get­ting richer

City aims to put eco­nomic and health equal­ity at heart of fu­ture plans, says mayor

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - David Crouch Gothen­burg

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.”

Pho­to­graph: Adam Ihse/TT/ Reuters

The gap be­tween rich and poor has al­most quadru­pled in Gothen­burg in two decades, ac­cord­ing to a coun­cil sur­vey

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