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The state of marriage in Sweden's welfare state

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Sweden, as most of the world knows, is a classic example of the welfare state. To the visitor, it is (to borrow a phrase from Ernest Hemingway) a clean, well-lighted place. To its citizens, it's a nation where high levels of taxation provide cradle-to-grave benefits that cover housing, employment, health insurance, pensions, education, day-care, and much more. Less widely recognized, however, are two other facts about Sweden. It has the lowest marriage rate, and the highest rate of non-marital cohabitation, of any nation in the industrial world.

Given Sweden's long tradition of permissiveness on questions of pre-marital sex, that's not surprising. What is surprising - and potentially disruptive to the entire fabric of the welfare state - is another fact just now beginning to surface: that Sweden appears to have the highest rate of family breakup in the Western world.

That's the conclusion reached by David Popenoe, a Rutgers University sociologist who has spent years studying the Swedish family. In an article scheduled for publication next month in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, he notes that while Swedes have labored to remove all legal distinctions between married and cohabiting couples - so that, for example, children born to unmarried parents have the same legal footing as the children of married couples - they have yet to address themselves to the sometimes obscure and often agonizing problem of family dissolution.

In fact, he notes, it's a problem that Swedes don't even like to talk about. In a nation famous for convening commissions to study every conceivable social problem, this issue has never been the subject of a major governmental investigation. Yet there it is, staring the welfare state in the face.

Why so little discussion? Part of the reason, of course, is that the breakup rate for unmarried couples is devilishly hard to chart. Divorce, by contrast, involves the measurable and legal dissolution of a legally formed union. But measuring the unrecorded breakups of never-formalized unions is another story. According to Dr. Popenoe, unmarried couples now make up perhaps 25 percent of all Swedish couples (up from an estimated one percent in 1960), with the number rising steeply among the lower age cohorts. He also notes that 45 percent of the births in 1984 were to unmarried mothers.

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