In 1970, a 17-year-old named Lars Tragardh left Sweden for America, exchanging the collectivism of his native country for a savage individualism. Or so he thought.
His disillusionment began when he was applying for college financial aid. He hoped to attend Pomona College in Southern California, and even then the tuition seemed high compared to the cost of education in Sweden, where college was free. When he learned that the school had two support forms, one for his own income and one for his parents, he was surprised. “Well, what does that have to do with me?” Tragardh remembers asking. “I am an adult… I no longer have economic relations with my family.” An administrator explained that in the United States, parents are expected to contribute to their children’s tuition.
Tragardh thought that sounded generous, but also concerning. Wouldn’t this kind of financial dependence give parents unreasonable influence over their adult children? What if the child wanted to study, say, history, but the parents refused to pay unless their child pursued medicine? “They looked at me like I was from Mars,” Tragardh, now a historian living in Stockholm, told me.
America has a reputation, both at home and abroad, for being a country that values independence above almost anything else. This ideal underpinned the sweeping Clinton-era welfare reform bill, which made it much harder for families with little or no income to qualify for sustained assistance in many states. Then-Senator Joe Biden voted for it, agreeing that “the culture of dependency must be replaced by the culture of self-sufficiency.” A quarter of a century later, when President Biden proposed revamping the Child Tax Credit – sending an increased monthly payment to some low- and middle-income parents – Senator Marco Rubio claimed it would undo “decades of bipartisan efforts” to encourage “work”. instead of addiction. The expanded credit passed but expired last year. Addiction, it seems, is deeply un-American.
But from Tragardh’s perspective, this commitment to independence rings hollow. For him, the Americans seem to have confused individualism with anti-statism; American policymakers willingly throw people into positions of dependency on their families and communities in order to keep the state out. He scores a point. We have our own culture of dependency, and it has its own flaws.
In Nordic countries, people usually have help to pay for their studies, but not from their parents. Take Sweden, for example: most European students do not have to pay tuition fees and Swedish citizens can apply for a stipend to cover their living expenses. All young people, university graduates or not, whose income is below a certain threshold can benefit from a housing allowance. And if they start their own family, they are automatically eligible for paid parental leave and, after the age of one, low-cost childcare.
With little of that guaranteed in the United States, young people have to look elsewhere. Americans are increasingly likely to live with their parents in their 20s and 30s, and in most cases parents pay the lion’s share of housing costs. About a third of low-income adults cite the need for childcare as a reason for such an arrangement. And many adults who don’t live with their parents still rely on them financially for tuition, loans, rent, mortgages, or childcare costs. This interdependence also sometimes goes the other way: adult children typically take on the role of primary caregiver for their aging parents, especially those on low incomes who cannot afford professional help.
When Anu Partanen, Finnish journalist and author of The Nordic Theory of Everything, based in the United States, she has never ceased to be struck by the extent to which the well-being of Americans depends on their connections. A few small examples stood out, like married couples filing their taxes jointly, or expectant parents getting their baby gear at baby showers. Others she found more troubling: an acquaintance who was battling cancer, for example, and couldn’t leave a bad relationship without losing her partner’s health insurance. Or the many mothers who, unable to pay for childcare, have to quit their jobs and rely on their husbands’ income.
The family dependencies woven through American life are notable for Scandinavians like Tragardh and Partanen because the Nordic welfare state, especially in Sweden, is designed to eliminate precisely these dependencies. In fact, Tragardh has come to conclude that Sweden’s guiding ideology is not so much collectivism as state individualism; the goal, as he and his co-author Henrik Berggren once put it, is to make individuals “as independent as possible of their fellow citizens.” Partly for this reason, Swedish universities have stopped considering parental income in financial aid decisions, Tragardh told me. Policies such as universal health care have a similar goal: to support citizens so that their families don’t have to.
Eliminating personal dependencies may seem dystopian, but the idea isn’t to banish our most intimate relationships, just to make sure they’re based on want rather than need. It is rooted in what Tragardh and Berggren describe in their book as the “Swedish theory of love”, which sees mutual autonomy as a prerequisite for a healthy relationship. Heavy dependence on family members or friends not only puts your well-being at the mercy of their whims, it is believed, but hampers your ability to engage with them authentically. By removing power relations, Swedish social policies allow people to associate while making decisions for themselves, without the pressure of staying in a benefactor’s good graces.
Of course, the cost of interpersonal independence is dependence on the state, which carries its own risks of abuse. But the point is not that the Nordic model is perfect. It’s that the American culture of self-reliance is a bit of a myth, and as a political goal, fostering total self-reliance is unrealistic. The alternative to the nanny state is not a country full of hardy individualists starting their path to self-sufficiency; it’s the one where adults are heavily dependent on mom and dad’s bank. “We are addicted animals,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, told me. “It’s kind of a pipe dream to think that you can somehow live in this self-sufficient way. And so the question is: depends on whom?
When citizens have to rely on their families, their prospects are extremely unequal: the more money your relations have, the better off you are. And in an economy where social mobility may require physical mobility – moving away from home to pursue education or a career – achieving financial independence is especially difficult. Some people just aren’t able to sacrifice child care or the roof over their head to take such a leap.
Others might not want to; caring for people can, of course, be rewarding. In fact, perhaps because I’m American, the Nordic fear of family dependency strikes me in much the same way that I imagine American fears of excessive government might strike a Swede – like a little exaggerated . My mother took care of my grandparents in their declining years; I expect to do the same for her, and this prospect feels more like an expression of my love than a threat to him.
Again, I remember well the quarrels that arose between my mother and her siblings under such strains. In America, we take these difficulties for granted, but it may be worth wondering what life would be like without them. Perhaps without the burden of caring for my grandparents, my mother could have more freely enjoyed the precious time she had left with them.