The United States and Scandinavia: A Comparison

**Note: I wrote an updated version of this in Jan 2020 to include all the Nordics. You can read it here.

During the May 3 edition of “This Week,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told George Stephanopoulos, “If we know that in countries in Scandinavia, like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries obviously; their voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States.  In those countries, health care is a right of all people.  In those countries, college education, graduate school is free.  In those countries, retirement benefits, childcare are stronger than in the United States of America.  And in those countries by and large, government works for ordinary people in the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.”  Stephanopoulous responded, “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now; ‘he wants America to look more like Scandinavia’.”  Sanders was okay with that, arguing, “That’s right.  That’s right.  What’s wrong with that?  What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality.  What’s wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, a higher minimum wage than we do and they’re stronger on the environment than we are.”  Sanders went on to say that there is nothing wrong with learning to other countries.  The portion begins around 1:40 of the video clip–

It is in that spirit that I set out to compare the U.S. and Scandinavia on a number of topics, including some of those mentioned by Sen. Sanders.

GDP per capita (2013)
a) Denmark: $59,818.60; b) Norway: $100,898.40; c) Sweden: $60,380.90; d) United States: $53,042.00

Individual Income Tax Rate (2014)
a) Denmark: 55.41%; b) Norway: 47.2%; c) Sweden: 57%; d) United States: 39.6%

Unemployment Rate (2013)
a) Denmark: 7.0%; b) Norway: 3.5%; c) Sweden: 8.1%; d) United States: 7.4%

Income Inequality (Gini Coefficient- the closer to 1, the greater the inequality, 2011)
a) Denmark: .253; b) Norway: .250; c) Sweden: .273; d) United States: .389

Quality of Overall Transport Infrastructure (Rank out of 144; 2014)
a) Denmark: 15; b) Norway: 28; c) Sweden: 18; d) United States: 16

Public Investment on Infrastructure (% of GDP; 2014)
a) Denmark: 3.4%; b) Norway: 3.3%; c) Sweden: 4.5%; d) United States: 4.1%

Total Paid Leave for Mothers (in weeks; 2014)
a) Denmark: 50; b) Norway: 81; c) Sweden: 60; d) United States: 0

Paid Leave Reserved for Fathers (in weeks; 2014)
a) Denmark: 2; b) Norway: 14; c) Sweden: 10; d) United States: 0

Public Spending on Education- Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary (% of GDP, 2011)
a) Denmark: 7.0%; b) Norway: 6.2%; c) Sweden: 6.0%; d) United States: 4.9%

Public Expenditure for Childcare and Early Education (% of GDP; 2014)
a) Denmark: 2.0%; b) Norway: 1.2%; c) Sweden: 1.6%; d) United States: 0.4%

Cost of Childcare, Couples (% of average wage; 2014)
a) Denmark: 11.9%; b) Norway: 14.9%; c) Sweden: 5.8%; d) United States: 35.1%

Mean Score in PISA (2012)
a) Denmark: 500; b) Norway: 489; c) Sweden: 478; d) United States: 481

Poverty Rates for Children (2010)
a) Denmark: 3.7%; b) Norway: 5.1%; c) Sweden: 8.2%; d) United States: 21.2%

Voter Turnout (2013 or latest available year)
a) Denmark: 87.74%; b) Norway: 78.23%; c) Sweden: 84.63%; d) United States: 66.65%

Environmental Performance Index (Rank out of 178; 2014)
a) Denmark: 13; b) Norway: 10; c) Sweden: 9; d) United States: 33

Health Care Ranking (out of 11 countries, 2014)
a) Denmark: Not part of the study; b) Norway: 7; c) Sweden: 3; d) United States: 11

Life Expectancy (2014)
a) Denmark: 79.9 years; b) Norway: 81.4 years; c) Sweden: 81.9 years; d) United States: 78.7

Corruption Perceptions Index (Rank out of 175; 2014)
a) Denmark: 1; b) Norway: 5; c) Sweden: 4; d) United States: 17

Press Freedom Score (0 is the most free; 2015)
a) Denmark: 12; b) Norway: 10; c) Sweden: 10; d) United States: 22

Life Satisfaction (10 is most satisfied; 2014)
a) Denmark: 9.4; b) Norway: 9.7; c) Sweden: 8.9; d) United States: 7.5

Since Denmark, Norway, and Sweden do not have laws for a minimum wage, I did not include that data.

While the list of indicators is not exhaustive and does not give a complete picture of life in these countries, it would appear Sen. Sanders is on to something here.  The question now is- what can U.S. policymakers learn from these countries?

To learn more about the three Scandinavian countries in general, check out their embassy websites:

Thanks for reading.


13 thoughts on “The United States and Scandinavia: A Comparison

  1. Being a Dane, I would like to comment on your article.

    One thing that makes the Scandinavian countries very different (or made them very diffferent until recently): countries with small enormously homogenous populations. This has changed the last few decades with an influx of people from countries with different cultures and ways of living. And actually all these fine figures have changed accordingly – at least for Denmark, A previous British ambassador to Denmark wrote: Denmark is not a nation, Denmark is a clan. I think this observation explains a lot and unfortunately the clan feeling has more or less disappeared.

    Denmark has become a country which is much less safe to live in, prisons are filled to the brim, and standards in health and education systems have fallen dramatically. BUT previously things were quite rosy.

    So the lesson to be learned for the US: this cannot be done with a country of more than 300 million inhabitants and a population mix that is like yours.

    Sorry to be so pessimistic ……

    • Hi Henny,

      Thanks very much for reading and for your thoughts. You raise a good point about the homogeneity of the populations in Scandinavia. While I agree with you that the United States will never be as close-knit (or “clan-like”) as Denmark, I think we can still learn a bit on providing for our population. With the world’s largest economy, there is no excuse for our rate of child poverty or lack of paid parental leave. I’m not saying adopting Scandinavian policies will solve all of our problems, but adapting them for the US should help promote the general welfare (as is stated in our Constitution). Thanks again.


    • “Small homogenous populations” is the key. There are cities here in the US that are larger than these countries. Homogeneous in this case of course is a politically correct term for “damn near all white”

  2. USA is in effect a continent, not sure how much sense it makes to compare it with a small Scandinavian country. If you instead did the same comparison with Massachusetts or Connectituct, you would find that these American states in not few ways would outperform the Scandinavian countries.

    It’s also interesting to note that Americans of Scandinavian heritage are doing far better in the US, than their Scandinavian “brethren” back home. They have higher income levels, are better educated, enjoy better social mobility, etc.

  3. wow i would say Scandinavian countries win overall in aggregate. Most stark to me is the childhood poverty figures. I see a lot of anecdotal BS on this subject by the American right and its nice to see a place where all the figures are laid out together. Thanks for this awesome site.

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