(Illustration photo: www.colourbox.no)

Hole in the mesh

The welfare state’s safety net doesn’t catch everyone. Parents’ economic status is still a factor determining who falls right through.

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“We need the welfare state but we can only surmise that it is far from perfect,” says Øyvind Wiborg, a PhD student at the University of Oslo.

Although the welfare state has lifted most people out of dire poverty, free education and welfare benefits haven’t eliminated the importance of one’s parents’ private economy, according to his research. 

The poorest still in jeopardy

Wiborg has studied how the economic status of parents affects the future of their children.

Øyvind Wiborg (Photo: Universitetet i Oslo)

Although income has risen for both rich and poor, the least well off still risk winding up on the sidelines of society.

But if everyone has become wealthier, why do the poorest still remain on the outside? Shouldn’t food on the table and a free education enable everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps for a better future?

“I’ve focused on what it is that marginalizes some people and keeps them on the outside. Personal economy is still a factor for several reasons,” says Wiborg.

The economy works indirectly

(Illustration photo: www.colourbox.no)

“A lack of money might not prevent you directly from attending to your basic needs.  But indirectly a poor economy can be a handicap."

As examples he names the expectations your parents have regarding your level of education, what sort of social network you have that can get you into the job market, the neighbourhood you grew up in or the schools you attend.

Educational inflation

Wiborg asserts that even though the welfare society has improved opportunities for all, it has also ballooned general demands.

“Far more people complete upper secondary school than in the 1950s. But that doesn’t guarantee a competitive edge because we’ve had an inflation in education,” he says.

The points of departure and requirements placed on individuals have followed each other up the ladder, so the gap between the poor and rich has risen correspondingly up the scale. The difference between them has remained the same, or has been increasing somewhat.

“Those who come from families with the best economy, the highest educations and the most solid social ballast walk into better paid and more secure jobs, they build their networks and rocket up through the system,” says Wiborg.

Cause or effect?

An obvious objection is that economic disparity is not the cause of the problem, but rather it is the result of genetic inheritance and other milieu influences from families.

“Such factors also have an impact,” says Wiborg, “but I have tried to evaluate household income as a cause.” 

“I have studied the same reference persons over a period of time. This has allowed me to account for all the stable traits of these persons, whether they can be observed or not, and thus isolate the effect of parents’ economic status.

Need the welfare state

Although the welfare state has its large faults, he does not think it has lost its justification or should be deemed a failure.

“Without the welfare state the numbers who fall by the wayside would be much higher. This study should be a clue leading to the improvement of the welfare state,” says Wiborg.

No lower limit
“My research challenges the claim that the welfare state has spread out such a wide net and boosted the entire population to such a degree of prosperity that everyone can rise to the top,” says Wiborg.

“Lots of research has shown how family background affects upward social mobility, but little has been conducted regarding how family background plays out as a risk for hitting the skids,” he says.

“Also, many people have the impression that there’s a lower limit, a poverty limit, and that wealth doesn’t mean anything as long as one is over this limit. My research shows that one’s economic status has a scaled impact up along the entire yardstick, from the poorest to the richest,” says Wiborg.

Unique National Insurance Numbers

He says that the special arrangement with National Insurance (Social Security) numbers in Scandinavia has enabled him to collect data of sufficient quality for research purposes.

“Most of my data comes from Statistics Norway, the national bureau of statistics. This has been made available through the research project “Educational careers” at the University of Oslo’s Department of Sociology and Human Geography,” he says. “It has been made anonymous, with every person receiving a unique special number other than their National Insurance number.” 

“This enables us to link large amounts of data through each special number, for instance information about education, income and contact with the welfare offices and other public agencies.”

But other data that could link the special number to a concrete person has been removed. For instance residences are only narrowed down to a municipality or city district.

“This data is globally unrivalled and isn’t utilised for all its worth,” says Wiborg. He thinks much too little has been done in researching the connection between parents’ economic status and downward social mobility and marginalization from the job market.


Øyvind N Wiborg: Bound to rise? Inter-generational disadvantages in Norway, doctoral thesis, University of Oslo, June 2011. 


Read this article in Norwegian at forskning.no

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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