Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Celebrations of Finland’s Success Leave One Big Group Behind

In Finland, one-person householders have a high rate of poverty.

Over at The Atlantic, Finland is getting lots of love. In the short time since it has been published, the recent article, “The secret to Finland’s success with schools, moms, kids – and everything,” has already attracted more than 30,000 “Likes.” Reporter Olga Khazan is persuasive about the strengths of the Finnish schools and the well-being of moms and kids.

She also claims that “Finns have incredible equality and very little poverty.” There is, though, a substantial segment of the Finnish population, unacknowledged in the article, not feeling all that equal or protected from poverty. They are people who are living alone. This is a fast-growing demographic in many countries around the world. In Finland, one-person households account for 41.5 percent of all households.

Poverty levels in 18 European nations were documented for 2010, overall and separately by various household types. A uniform definition was used across the countries: “A person whose household income per consumption unit is less than 60 per cent of the median income is considered living at risk of poverty.”

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Overall, Finland is in the top third of countries with the lowest rates of poverty. At 13.1 percent of its population at risk for poverty, it is the sixth best, just below countries I expected to be in the top group, such as the Netherlands (#2 at 10.3 percent) and Sweden (#5 at 12.9 percent). The Czech Republic (9 percent), Austria (12.1 percent), and Hungary (12.3 percent) also do a bit better than Finland.

In every household type assessed in the report, except for one, Finland looks even better than it did overall. For households including two adults and 3 or more children, Finland’s poverty rate of 11.8 percent is second only to Denmark’s rate of 11.1 percent. For households with two adults and two children, Finland rate of 7.4 percent comes in third, behind Denmark again (5.1 percent) and Sweden (6.9 percent). Finland also does well with single-parent households, with a poverty rate of 22 percent, second only to Denmark’s rate of 20 percent.

In Finland, couples with no children are doing well, too. Their risk of being impoverished is 7.1 percent, fifth best after the Czech Republic (4.2), the Netherlands (5.7), Hungary (5.9), and Sweden (6.1).

Where Finland fares badly is in the economic security of its people living in single-person households. Of the 18 European nations, Finland comes in second-to-last in the percentage of 1-person households at risk of living in poverty, at 31.5 percent. Only Bulgaria does worse, at 50.9 percent.

Risk of Poverty in 1-person households (percent):

13.2  Hungary

16.8  France

17.6  Netherlands

18.0  Czech Republic

18.8  Belgium

22.1  Austria

24.3  Italy

24.5  Poland

25.7  Spain

26.7  Romania

27.0  UK

27.1  Denmark

27.2  Greece

28.5  Sweden

30.0  Germany

30.1  Portugal

31.5  Finland

50.9  Bulgaria

Now compare these poverty rates for 1-person households with the rates for households comprised of 2 adults and 2 children.

Risk of Poverty in households with 2 adults and 2 children (percent):

 5.1  Denmark

 6.9  Sweden

 7.4  Finland

 7.8  Austria

 8.7  Netherlands

 8.7  Czech Republic

 8.8  Germany

10.6  Belgium

10.8  France

12.2  UK

14.6  Hungary

17.1  Portugal

19.8  Poland

20.3  Greece

20.3  Bulgaria

20.8  Italy

23.3  Spain

26.7  Romania

In Finland, the 31.5 percent risk of poverty in single-person households is, on the average, greater than the rate of poverty for 2 adult + 2 children households in every European nation included in the report.

A Finnish scholar with relevant research interests (who does not wish to be named) suggests that Finland typically assumes a 2-income model, leaving single people particularly vulnerable. Also, the number of available small apartments falls far short of the demand, resulting in especially expensive housing costs for single people.

Kudos to Finland for all that it has done well for moms, children, families, and education, and to The Atlantic for underscoring its successes. Now I hope the country will address the vulnerabilities of the 41.5 percent of the households consisting of one person. In a nation doing so much right, it makes no sense for nearly a third of its single-person householders to be in fear for their financial lives.

[Note. Thanks to the scholars in Finland who have been answering my questions and enlightening me about the place of singles in their society.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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