The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Unmarried and on Disability Pensions in Sweden

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

For decades, progressives have regarded Sweden as the Promised Land. They laud Swedish policymakers for the exceptionally generous support they have given unmarried mothers employed outside the home. However, a study by researchers at Stockholm University and the Karolinska Institute indicates that public welfare is a poor substitute for marriage. What is more, that study suggests that policies favorable to women’s employment but unfavorable to wedlock will, in the end, push the government toward bankruptcy.

Indeed, the risk of government insolvency was in view as the researchers began their investigation into what they call the “heavy socioeconomic burden” on Sweden and other countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) because of the numbers of people relying on tax-funded disability pensions. More narrowly, the researchers worry about the way that, “in many countries, a shift in the gender structure of disability pensioners has occurred,” in part because “a marked increase in the number of young individuals on D[isability] P[ension] based on psychiatric diagnoses has been observed, which has been most pronounced among young women” (emphasis added).

Because the trend in psychiatrically justified Disability Pensions granted to young women is pronounced in Sweden, the researchers focused on Swedish women. By analyzing data collected between 1993 and 2003 from all women born in Sweden between 1960 and 1979, the researchers sought to identify the social circumstances of women receiving costly Disability Pensions (DPs). Their analysis clearly identified prolonged maternal employment and single marital status as predictors of women’s receiving such pensions.

The researchers’ analysis highlighted the contrast between “cohabiting” Swedish women and “lone” Swedish women. However, the researchers define their terms somewhat peculiarly: “Cohabitation meant either married or cohabiting with children in common. Thus, if they were cohabiting without children in common, [the women in the study] were classified as lone.”

Even if the terminology is disorienting, the statistical results are clear: those results indicate that in the short run “cohabiting working mothers” enjoyed “a beneficial health effect,” evident in notably low DP rates among these women, a health effect “which may be explained by a protective effect of social integration provided by living with a partner and children.” However, in the long run, out-of-home maternal employment takes its toll: in the five-year follow-up data, the researchers found that “cohabiting working mothers were at a higher risk of receiving a DP compared with those without children.”

But the most markedly elevated Disability Pension rates emerge not among “cohabiting” women but rather among “lone” women. “Overall,” the researchers report, “lone women showed higher H[azard]R[isks] than cohabiting women, and among employed lone women, the HR was highest for those who had children.” The researchers acknowledge that their finding that “lone working mothers had the highest risk of DP both in the short and long term” is “in line with expectations.” After all, “Previous studies have clearly pointed out the vulnerability of this group, which may be explained by the heavy workload and greater responsibility that is shouldered by many of these women, as well as weak financial resources.”

Summarizing their findings, the researchers conclude, “A considerable part of the social expenses due to DP should be attributed to lone working women with children. Their illness and decreased work capacity have implications not only for the mothers but probably also for the children.” American policymakers should recognize this study’s cautionary implications: policies that promote maternal employment while inhibiting marriage will cost the country dearly.

(Birgitta Floderus et al., “Disability Pension among Young Women in Sweden, with Special Emphasis on Family Structure: A Dynamic Cohort Study,” BMJ Open 2.3 [May 30, 2012]: e000840.)