The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

Bella DePaulo2

New Monthly Blog from Bella DePaulo: Bella’s Blog #2

Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and the forthcoming How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

The views expressed here are my own and not the official position of Unmarried Equality.

The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

As we in the United States pursue equality for people who are not married, we may find it informative and maybe even inspiring to explore how others around the globe are doing the same. Now and then, I will devote this column to sharing what I’ve learned about the pursuit of social justice for unmarried people in different countries. I’ll begin today with Finland.

People who are unmarried come in many varieties, and different advocacy groups focus on different subsets of them. Here at Unmarried Equality (UE), we cast a broad net, working for fairness for couples who cannot marry or choose not to, as well as solo singles, regardless of whether they are living alone or with other people. In Finland, an important advocacy group is the Association for People Who Live Alone in Finland, focused, as the name suggests, on those who live alone.

In the U.S., 27 percent of all households are comprised of people who live alone – a number that has been increasing fairly steadily for decades. In Finland, the comparable statistic is an astonishing 42 percent. No other household type is as commonplace in that country.

The mission of the Association is equality and justice for those who live alone. Its leaders realize that consciousness-raising about the challenges of living solo in Finland is essential to their success. The group has become an important resource for policy-makers, scholars, and the media, as well as solo dwellers themselves.

A very popular article about Finland published in the Atlantic a few years ago declared that “Finns have extraordinary equality and very little poverty.” The statement is true of all sorts of Finns, such as those who live in households with two adults and their children, or even single-parent households. Among 18 European nations, only in Denmark do comparable households have lower levels of poverty. Finnish households comprised of couples with no kids do fairly well, too. One group, though, is way behind all the others – Finns who are living alone. In Hungary, France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Poland, Spain, Romania, the UK, Denmark, Greece, Sweden, Germany, and Portugal, solo dwellers are less likely to live in poverty than they are in Finland. Only in Bulgaria do people who live alone fare worse.

Even those solo dwellers who are not living in poverty have far less disposable income than other Finns. For example, after paying for housing and other necessities, people living alone have left only between 23 percent and 34 percent of what couples without children have.

The problem, it seems, is that despite the popularity of living alone, policies seem to be formulated based on the model of a two-income household. Sadly, even in such a progressive nation as Finland, singlist policies (those that discriminate against single people) are rampant. Here are just a few of the examples the Association lists on its website:

  • Taxes: Finns pay a VAT tax of about 24 percent on many items. People who live as couples can share those taxes on all those goods and services they can use together, while people living alone pay them in full. That means that for many items, single people living alone pay double the taxes that couples living together pay.
  • Fees: Fees for services such as waste disposal are often charged by the household, even though people living solo place fewer demands on those services than people such as couples and families who live in households with more people.
  • Job-related housing tax deductions: Unemployed single people may need to accept temporary work anywhere as long as there is housing available, and they can claim no housing deductions. The prejudiced belief underlying this policy seems to be that single people have no roots and no aging parents or anyone else they care for. Couples can get housing deductions even if they have no children and only one person works.
  • Cost of housing: The price per square foot is about 34 percent higher for studios than for apartments of 3 rooms or more.

It is the mission of the Association to let legislators know that these matters are important and need to be addressed. In the lead up to the recent parliamentary elections, the Association submitted a petition documenting their concerns to all of the parliamentary parties. Afterwards, Association leaders urged the new government to set up a working group to address solo-dwellers’ issues.

In addition to insisting on attention to the kinds of issues listed above, the Association also lists other concerns that many single Americans would not dare to voice. For example, Finnish advocates believe that solo-dwellers should receive greater unemployment allowances and bigger pensions paid by the state than couples who are sharing a place because the expenses of the people living alone are greater. And in fact, before a new pension system was introduced in 2011, people living alone actually did receive a special supplement.

The Association for People Who Live Alone in Finland was not founded until 2009. Yet already, the group has made important strides. For example, among the fees that were once charged by the household rather than by the person was a television license tax. The Association got that changed to a personal television tax, thereby lightening the load significantly for solo dwellers in that domain.

In a country with about 300 million fewer citizens than the U.S., the Association also managed to do something in 2013 that Americans never have: host a day-long conference to educate others about people who live alone. I was delighted to be one of the guest speakers addressing a packed auditorium of lawyers, city planners, social workers, deacons, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, political leaders, researchers, teachers, and students.

The Association faces some of the same challenges as UE. Funding is scarce and difficult to obtain. Membership is not what it should be, considering the number of people who live single, and it can be challenge to recruit and maintain people in leadership positions when there is so much work to be done and no economic compensation for the effort.

Nonetheless, the Association’s successes are inspiring. Top political leaders have actually declared that people who live alone are targets of unfair fees, taxes, and housing costs, and deserve justice. (We in the U.S. can only dream of having such advocates in high places.) Journalists are writing stories and people are talking. I guess we can all keep hoping, here and in Finland and around the globe, that Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

[Note: Thanks to Mona Bjork for her help in translating key information about the Association. Thanks also to Mona, Tomi Fleming, and Raija Eeva for educating me over the past few years about single people in Finland and for all their work on behalf of people who live alone.]

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