An important principle in the Swedish welfare model is that all
adults – women and men, mothers and fathers – should have the
possibility to support themselves through wage work. Public child
care constitutes a very important part of the social infrastructure
which should make this possible (Bergqvist & Nyberg 2001, 2002).
However, an adequate supply of public child care is not enough; it
should also be accessible, of high quality and affordable. If not,
public child care risks being a marginal phenomenon, a last resort
for mothers (parents) who do not have a choice.
The policies laying the foundations of the dual earner model
emerged in Sweden in the course of the 1960s and 1970s (Sainsbury
1996, 1999; Bergqvist et al. 1999; Löfström 2004). A new approach
to gender equality in both employment and responsibility for
children and family became acknowledged in the law and in
policies, if not always in practice. However, at the beginning of the
1990s there was a sharp economic downturn. The employment rate
fell dramatically and unemployment soared to levels unthinkable
since the 1930s.1 The employment crisis, in turn, produced an
accelerating public sector deficit, with revenues plummeting and
public expenditures shooting up.2 The situation began to improve
only as the decade came to an end, but the employment rate is
considerably lower today than in 1990, while the unemployment
rate is much higher and this is true for both women and men. In addition to the economic crisis, there were also other factors that
might constitute a challenge to the stability of the traditional
Swedish welfare model, the dual earner model and gender equality.
First, the Social Democratic Party lost its historically dominant
position, which opened the way for neo-liberal ideas on market
forces and privatisation. The internationalisation of capital markets
and financial transactions, plus Sweden’s participation in the
European integration project also posed new challenges.
Given the unemployment situation, the financial strains,
globalisation, and the spread of neo-liberal ideas, it is reasonable to
assume that serious attempts to transform the Swedish welfare state
might have been undertaken and the dual earner model might be
undermined. The aim of this article is to assess the consequences of
the economic crisis on publicly financed child care. What happened
to the supply of child care, to the accessibility, affordability and to
the quality in public child care between 1990 and 2005? To start
with, however, the background in terms of mothers’ employment
and the expansion of public child care is briefly presented.