At the heart of the Scandinavian welfare states is an institution known as the “Social Insurance.” Prompted by impulse and guidance, the architects of national insurance were the Social Democrat policymakers and trade unionists. Social insurance is generally administrated by the national insurance in every Nordic country including Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The function of social insurance is about the same as what is known as “Social Security” in English speaking countries. The modern social insurance came into being in the late 1950s as the biggest source of welfare state structural reform to cover compensation for sickness and incapacity. Over time, it became a gigantic and bureaucratic public organization, extended to nearly 1,300 offices across the region and covered both universal and the means-tested benefits of all kind. Today, nearly 25 million Scandinavian natives and immigrants experience the effects of this public institute in one way or another.
The universal benefits are paid to everyone at the same rate and include child allowance, adoption allowance, birth bonus, maternity leave and so forth. Means-tested benefits cover a wide range of allowances from sickness, early retirement, social housing to disabilities of all kinds. It even helps to cover the costs of a funeral arrangement inside and outside the region. It covers sex workers and tax-paying prostitutes who are entitled to sickness pay, unemployment benefits and retirement benefits. The main objectives of national insurance, however, are to calculate and compensate the equation of earning and expenditure. The social insurance takes care of all subsidies and allowances including the unlimited phone calls and text messages for not feeling well to go to work. To put a figure on the amount of workload, each year at least 10% of Scandinavia’s workforce is on sick leave. Another 10% to 12% is on either early retirement or unemployment benefits. That means over 20% of the Scandinavian workforce are the regular customers of social insurance.
National insurance is an iconic and widely admired public institution in the history of the welfare state providing all sorts of social and welfare related cash and service. It evokes a very familiar image of distributing benefits to citizens who experience, for the most part, no guilt, shame or feeling of embarrassment. Part of the reason is that the negative association of the entitlement has been desensitized or remained beneath the surface of the social norm for decades. As a culture, both immigrants and natives are more open to talk about the social and welfare benefits and feel the benefits are their right, and the state holds the assumption of owing the citizens. This ideological norm made it easy for people to apply for a variety of subsidies and allowances from a list of 134 benefit programs. The chief beneficiaries, however, are not the poor, the sick and misfortunate ones, but the middle class, healthy individuals, and those in employment, underemployment, or unemployment. Except for welfare cash, everything related to subsidies and allowances needs to be handled through social insurance. All the application forms, documentation, approval and appeal have to go through accurately and precisely. To have a kind of direct observation deep into the function of social insurance, let us have a close look at one of the social insurance offices in Sweden as an example. Understating the nature and function of this office is the best illustration that a good deal of people’s lives is spent in dealing with their social benefits.
February 5, 2018 was just a normal Monday morning when the Social Insurance (Försäkringskassan) opened for its daily routine at Östra Hamngatan 16 in Gothenburg, Sweden. The electronically locked door opens at 10 o’clock sharp as people cued in front of the office before the opening. A large, clean, special and well-designed office at the heart of the city creates a good impression as an important part of the Scandinavian sense of design identity. It gives the customers a positive feeling because the office is well designed with spacious and elegant counters, large enough to handle more than a thousand clients a day. The social insurance is not just a building, it is also an iconic symbol with the power to influence the attitude and behavior of its customers and bystanders on the subsidy-taxation model. It evokes pleasure and awe through its quality management and transparency and has a long history associated with individual entitlement. It presents the elusive psychological mechanisms that underlie these behaviors contradicting to people’s will...