The Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth and Family Policies



(Last updated May 2008)


Introduction and Overview

Sweden has an explicit family policy, which, historically, has been focused on protecting children, redistributing income so as to assure an adequate standard of living to all, compensating for the economic costs of rearing children and giving people the economic resources to have children when they so want, promoting gender equity, and facilitating the reconciliation of work and family life. Although Swedish family policy emerged out of concern with a low birthrate and pronatalist goals in the 1930s, this has not been an objective since World War II (Palme, et al., 2002; Greve, 1999; Palme and Wennemo, 1998; Ditch et al., 1996).

The key elements of Sweden's family policy are extensive and universal support both for early childhood education and care services and for an extended paid and job-protected parental leave following child birth or adoption. Sweden is among the very few countries that spend about the same amount on childcare services as on family or child allowances; and Sweden's family policy, like its social policy generally, stresses universalism as a principle rather than targeting on the poor.

Sweden experienced a major economic crisis in the early/mid 1990s. Economic growth was negative for some years and real GDP fell. Its unemployment rate "exploded" in the early 1990s reaching a high of more than 8 percent, four times the rate during the 1980s. The cost of unemployment benefits rose dramatically and the budget deficit "boomed." Sweden is one of the leaders in Europe in population aging and beginning in 1998  reformed its generous old age pensions system. During these years when the economy was under pressure and unemployment rose, the child poverty rate increased from 6.0 percent in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 1994, using the U.S. absolute poverty measure and 2.6 percent using the relative poverty measure (less than 50 percent of median income). The rate rose subsequently. The poverty rate of lone mothers increased during the mid-1990s, declining somewhat by the end of the decade, as well. By the end of the decade, the child poverty rate had declined to 5.3 percent and 4.2 percent in 2000.

The Swedish economy has recovered beginning in the late 1990s. In 2002 Sweden’s official unemployment rate was 5.1 percent, significantly lower than the OECD average of 6.3 percent. However, the rate climbed to 7.8 percent in 2005, higher than the OECD average of 6.7 percent. Sweden  has a long-standing response to unemployment that includes a stress on "active' rather than "passive" labor market policies (education and training programs rather than unemployment benefits). The Swedes continue to link receipt of social benefits to work, or preparation for work.

During the period of "hard times" in the mid 1990s, Sweden reduced its child benefit from about $100 to $80 a month, the first ever cut in the nominal value of these benefits. The supplementary benefit provided to larger families with three or four children was eliminated. Child support (advanced maintenance) benefits and housing allowances were more constricted. Of particular importance, Sweden reduced the rate at which social benefits replaced wages but not the length of time recipients could receive the benefits. The supply of childcare services was sustained but quality declined somewhat. Parent fees rose (from 15-20 percent of operating costs to 25 - 30 percent in some municipalities. About 15 percent of the services were privatized; about half of those now are for profit, operating largely through contracts with local government. Privatization (to nonprofit providers), decentralization, and an increase in user fees for social services and early childhood education and care services characterized much of the 1990s.

Despite the cuts, school meals remained free and available to all children during these years, Sweden's universal health care was sustained; and expenditures on social assistance and special assistance to refugees were doubled as a share of GDP. Moreover, family benefits, which had declined from 4.6 percent of GDP in 1993 to 3.7 percent in 1997, began to rise again in 1998. Nonetheless, it was still only 3.5 percent in 2003.

According to Swedish policy scholars Joachim Palme and Irene Wennemo, family benefits were subject to "temporary retrenchment rather than reform", but the cuts were modest and there was no restructuring. Sweden experienced a combination of cuts in transfers (cash benefits), increases in taxes (higher social security contributions), rising unemployment, and declining wages. It is this fourfold combination-this quadruple whammy-that hurt children and their families most, not the cuts in benefits and services alone, which were really quite modest. Indeed, policies and programs for children and their families have clearly been protected.

As of mid-1998 child allowances had returned to their nominal high of a few years earlier (only slightly below the real high) and were worth about 7.5 percent of average manufacturing wages, the supplementary benefit for larger families was re-instated, benefit replacement rates had been increased to 80 percent of prior wages, the block grants to municipalities for social services including child care were close to the high level of the earlier 1990s, the budget was in surplus and the surplus was projected to be even larger for next year. By 2001, child allowances were above their earlier real high,  950 SEK for each of the first two children and still higher for subsequent children. The benefit was raised again several years later.

In short, the Swedish welfare state may be less generous today than a dozen years ago but child-related benefits and services have been protected. Benefit replacement rates are generous. Child allowances are now above their earlier real levels at 1050 SEK. Single parent families have been protected. In a comparative sense, the Scandinavian model remains extraordinarily generous, indeed the most generous of all countries in the OECD, especially to children and their families. Nonetheless, in its 2006 national report on social conditions in Sweden, the National Board of Health and Welfare highlighted two current challenges affecting young people and their families. They first is the increasing difficulty for youth of establishing themselves in the labor market, particularly for those with a foreign background. The second is the  increase in ethnic segregation in the metropolitan areas and the polarization of social environment between native-born persons and persons perceived as foreign by the majority of the population.

According to data provided by the Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs (2003), Swedish family policy continues to be based on the principles of universality and individual rights. It comprises: child and family cash  benefits, parent insurance,  high quality child care, and advance maintenance. Family benefits are aimed at reducing the income disparities between those with children and those without.

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Government Agencies

The major government agencies responsible for family policy are the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the National Board of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Education and Research and the National Agency for Education, the National Social Insurance Board and regional and local offices. The final governmental responsibility for children rests with the locality (municipality). The local government is responsible for early childhood education and care (ECEC), education, dental care and medical checkups of children, and leisure time activities for children and youth. ECEC services previously were administered by the National Welfare Board, but in 1996 were transferred to the Education Ministry.


Demographic and Other Social Trends

Sweden has a population of about 9 million, and is the largest of the Nordic countries. Children constituted about 17 percent of its population, slightly below the OECD average (about 19 percent) but slightly above the EU 15 average (16 percent) in 2005. The elderly constituted about 17 percent of its population, well above the OECD average of about 14 percent, but about the same as that of the EU 15. Its total fertility rate in 2004 was 1.75, slightly above the EU average. About 55 percent of births occur outside of marriage, but most are to two cohabiting parents living in consensual relationships with their biological children. Its teen birth rate is very low. Seventy-three  percent of children under the age of 18 live in a two-parent family, with their biological parents, regardless of whether or not the parents are legally married. About one-third of Swedish children are likely to experience a parental divorce or separation. Homosexual partners have the right to qualify as adoptive parents.

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Social Protection

Historically, Sweden has been the prototypical Scandinavian country, following a distinctive and generous pattern of social policy. The emergence of a Swedish model in the social policy field is largely a WWII phenomenon. It started with the introduction of universal old-age pensions and equally universal child benefits. In the 1950s this was followed by the introduction of earnings-related benefits in a universal framework. Social Security benefits were further improved and extended in the 1960s and 1970s. The extension of the maternity leave and benefit to a parental policy was part of this development, as was the expansion of the public social services for the elderly and then for children. These benefits and services are financed by direct and indirect taxes and by contributions from employers and employees. In 2003, Sweden spent 31.3 percent of GDP on social protection (down from a high of 38.6 percent in 1993 and '94), but still the highest proportion in the EU and OECD. More than 4 percent of GDP was spent on family benefits (cash and services) in 2004, in comparison to about 3.5 percent three years later.

There are several distinctive features of the Swedish model. One is the strong emphasis on universal rather than targeted and means-tested social policies. Sweden is one of the two countries (along with Denmark) with the lowest degree of income inequality. Social assistance exists in Sweden and is locally administered, but it is a not a major component of social protection. A second distinctive feature is the stress on labor market policy and the strong link between labor market and social policies. A third is the emphasis on "active" rather than "passive" labor market policies focusing on education and training of the unemployed, rather than unemployment benefits. And a fourth is a stress on gender equity.

In the late 1990s, Sweden's child poverty rate (using the relative definition of less than 50 percent of median income) at 2.6 percent was the lowest of 23 countries while Sweden ranked 12th in per capita GNP. (This was at a time when the U.S. child poverty rate ranked 22nd in that same list, and its per capita GNP ranked second. In 2000, its child poverty rate had increased to 4.2 percent using the same relative measure, ranking 4th among 25 countries (after Denmark, Finland, and Norway, lower than 22 of the 25), as compared with the highest ranked United States.

For more information on the social security systems, labor market regulations, collective bargaining, social and family policies, see the International Reform Monitor.

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Child, Youth and Family Policy Regimes

Maternity, Paternity, Parental, and Family Leaves

Paid, job-protected maternity, paternity, and parental, leaves constitute a significant component of ECEC policy (see below) and family policy, too (Gunnarsson et al., 1999; see also Bernhardt, 2003). This policy of paid leaves following childbirth (or adoption) has major consequences for infant and toddler ECEC programs, affecting the age at which out-of-home care may be needed. The Swedish Parental Insurance benefit is the international exemplar. It was established in 1974 and amended several times subsequently. It is a universal social insurance benefit, to which all parents are entitled when giving birth or adopting a child. The insurance covers a right to leave from work with a job guarantee and a right to financial support during the leave; the benefit is included in taxable income.

Pregnancy benefit can be paid for 7 weeks until 11 days before the expected birth to women who can no longer cope with strenuous physical work demands; other pregnant women may use their paid parental leave or sick leave for 60 days before the expected birth. There is an associated two-week paternity leave after childbirth.. Parental leave, totaling 480 days of paid leave, consists of  two months reserved exclusively for each parent and the remainder as a family benefit. In an OECD review, 35 percent of Swedish fathers took their full two months, the highest proportion in OECD countries (OECD, 2006).The first 13 months of leave is paid at 80 percent of wages up to a ceiling (and 100 percent for civil servants), another three months at a low flat rate, and the final three months unpaid, but still job-protected. (A non-working mother is entitled to the minimum flat rate benefit). (Private employers increasingly are "topping off" the first four months, thus covering 100 percent of salary for these months). The parental leave can be prorated (to cover 12.5 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, or 100 percent of time off from work) or shared by mother and father. The paid leave portions may be used until the child’s eighth birthday. All eligible mothers take advantage of the fully paid leave and about 80 percent of the flat rate benefit is claimed. About 75 percent of eligible fathers took some part of the leave, but this amounted to only 19 percent of all parental leave taken in 2004. On average, fathers were on leave for 44 days (Chronholm, Haas and Hwang, 2007; Gunnarsson et al., 1999; Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, Swedish Family Policy, No. 11, April 2005; and personal communication). Employers must be given at least two months’ notice by employees regarding taking the leave. The government has proposed to introduce a gender equality bonus to induce more equal take-up of the leave between mothers and fathers. The bonus would offer an extra tax reduction to the parent with the lower wage when the other parent stays at home. The parents need not be cohabiting.

Working parents may take up to 120 days a year paid leave to care for an ill child under age 12, and aged 12-15, with a doctor’s certificate. They may use 60 of those days to stay home in the case of illness of their child's caregiver) depending on the seriousness of the condition (Family Leave). Fathers take about 41 percent of this leave. Working grandparents may do the same. As of January 1, 2002, each working parent is entitled to 5 days a year for personal child needs (e.g., to visit a child's school).

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Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)

Early childhood education and care in Sweden has been given high priority for nearly three decades and is one of the cornerstones of Swedish family policy (OECD, 2001; Gunnarsson, et al., 1999; Kamerman, 1998; Swedish Ministry of Social Affairs, 2005). Sweden is one of the countries included in the OECD (2001; 2006) 20-country study of early childhood education and care.

Policies extending the supply of care and promoting high quality have been strongly supported by the Parliament and by the public at large. According to a recent report, Swedish childcare has two objectives: (1) to make it possible for parents to combine employment or studies with family life, and (2) to support and encourage children's development and learning and help them grow up under conditions that are conducive to their well-being (OECD, 2001). Since the early 1970s, when the dual goals were officially laid down with the launching of a large-scale public childcare program, the program has been viewed as including both care and education. In recent years, the educational policy aspects became increasingly important and in July 1996 responsibility for public childcare was transferred from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs to the Ministry of Education and Science (now Education and Research). Starting in 1998, a voluntary form of  pre-school  for six-year-olds was established within the state school system. The system is designed to operate as a transition year to formal learning. Municipalities are required to offer places to all children; the participation rate is currently 95 percent.

Swedish ECEC programs are designed to meet children's needs for early education, socialization, and opportunities for enhanced development as well as care. They cover the normal work day and year, are publicly funded, delivered through a free-standing autonomous system of pre-schools, both full and part-time,  and family day care homes, and serve all children under compulsory school age who have working mothers or mothers who are full time students. (The government is increasingly stressing the need for access to subsidized care regardless of parental employment status. Since 2001, the children of unemployed parents are guaranteed at least 3 hours of ECEC a day and full access for all 4-5 year olds.) The programs were developed initially as a service for the children of poor, working, single mothers. However, with the rise in female labor force participation rates in the 1960s and 1970s, and the high current rates for mothers of preschool-aged children (about 81 percent when the youngest child is 3-5), they are increasingly serving almost all children. Since January 2002, a maximum fee for ECEC programs went into effect, reducing the cost of these programs for many families. The fees are now equal to 1-3  percent of monthly family income and cover  about 9 percent of operating costs. Fees are waived for children of low income families. The maximum fee in US dollars for one child is $135, $107 for a second child, and $54 for a third (OECD, 2006). The government has established a policy of guaranteeing a place for any child whose parents wish them enrolled, from the age of one year. (Sweden's parental leave lasts for 18 months and infant care is largely parental care.)

Swedish (and Danish) ECEC programs constitute the highest quality of out-of-home care and education available anywhere. Centers are held to the same standards of quality, and charge the same fees to parents, regardless of whether they are public, private non-profit or for-profit. More than 90 percent of children in preschool are in public or publicly funded programs and only 3 percent are in for-profit programs. Standards concerning group size, staff:child ratios, and caregiver qualifications are high, rigorously set and enforced, and are based on extensive research. Staff salaries are comparable to average wages in other occupations. Staff turnover is low (about 10 percent a year). Even though staff: child ratios were lowered in the mid-1990s as a consequence of cuts in public spending on child care in Sweden, they still remained higher than in other countries.

The programs are universal and serve all children under age 7, with priority for children with working mothers, lone mothers, from immigrant or low-income families, or who have a disability. All children aged 1-11 with working parents or parents who are students, are guaranteed a place in good quality care. As of 2001, children of unemployed parents are guaranteed a place as well, albeit for part of the day. The coverage rate for 2-5 year olds in center care or in supervised family day care was close to 90 percent in 2006. In 2006 some 74 percent of all six- to nine-year-olds were enrolled in school-age childcare, the majority in out-of-school centers, which are generally integrated into the schools. The figure fell to 43 percent if school-age children up to the age of 12 were included. Thirty percent of children look after themselves after school (Statistics Sweden, 2007). Forty-four percent of the under 3s and 95 percent of the 3-6 year olds were enrolled in 2003. As of January 1, 2003, all 4 and 5 year olds are guaranteed a place in preschool, regardless of their parents’ employment status, if only for part of the day, if their parents wish it.

ECEC is universal, mandatory for municipalities to provide, and voluntary for children to participate in. Parents want their children to participate.

Family day care (called "child minding" in much of Europe) is still regarded as secondary to group care programs in Sweden, but is seen also as responding to some parents' preferences and some children's needs. Family day care providers are trained personnel, who receive good salaries and benefits and are selected, guided, supervised, and made ever more qualified by assigned and qualified supervision.

The center-right government formed in 2006 has proposed financial policy reforms to the ECEC regime: a childcare voucher system, a gender equality bonus, a voluntary municipal child-raising allowance; and increased educational content in preschool.

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Family Allowances

Child Allowances are a cash benefit provided to families with at least one parent residing in Sweden for at least 6 months, based on the presence and age of the child. The first and current law was enacted in 1947, and applies to Swedish residents with one or more children under age 16 (or 20 if a student, 23 if attending a special school for the intellectually disabled). Child allowance is payable at the rate of 1050 SEK a month (about $176). It is a universal benefit. There is a small supplementary allowance for the second child in two-children families. A special benefit for large families -- with three or more children -- and linked to child allowance, was eliminated in 1996 but re-instated subsequently. An extended child allowance is payable for children over 16 still attending compulsory school and for those attending upper secondary school. The benefit is excluded from taxable income. Children of widows and widowers may receive child allowances in addition to the child pension. Children of other single parents with full custody receive a larger allowance, either from child support payments or advanced maintenance allowance from the state.. A special allowance is payable to parents adopting a foreign child (from outside the country).  The current conservative government has announced its intention to open the way for municipalities to introduce child-raising allowances for the purpose of enabling parents with children aged one to three to extend their time at home after the expiration of their parental leave.


Child and Family Tax Benefits

Since the tax unit for income tax purposes is the individual, there are no special tax concessions for families in the Swedish system. The philosophy grows out of the gender equity policy. Swedish employees pay substantially less in the way of payroll taxes than in other countries, but the government and employers contribute more. Companies pay "employer taxes", sometimes earmarked for certain social services, and a Swede working full-time pays an average of 30-40 percent in direct taxes on income. In addition Sweden has an indirect 25 percent state sales tax (a VAT or Value Added Tax) on goods and services. 

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Child Support

Child maintenance or support is expected to be paid by the non-custodial parent whether the parents are unmarried, separated, or divorced. Parents can make an agreement regarding the amount of the maintenance but in the case of disputes the court decides. Each child is entitled to a certain minimum amount, which is guaranteed by the government. In cases where the non-custodial parent is not able to pay at least the minimum, the government pays it. Child support/maintenance can be advanced by the public social insurance office and the amount paid is then reclaimed from the parent who has to pay maintenance. The child support benefit (guaranteeing a minimal level of support to children in single-parent families) was reformed, in the latter part of the 1990s in an effort at getting non-custodial parents to provide more in the way of support. The reform linked the court-ordered support awards more closely to the non-custodial parent's income and eliminated the indexing of the minimum support benefit. In 2007, the guaranteed minimum support was SEK1273 per month (currently about  USD 213).

Almost all Swedish parents have joint legal custody after separation or divorce or if unmarried: this does not mean joint living arrangements. Child(ren) live predominantly or exclusively with the mother (Bernhardt, 2003).


Other Child Conditioned Income Transfers

A widow or widower living with a child under the age of 18 is entitled to a universal survivor's adjustment pension payable for 12 months, which may be extended for as long as she/he is living with a child under age 12. An orphan up to the age of 18 (20 if a student) is entitled to a child pension of 30 percent of the Government-set “price base amount” for each deceased parent. An orphan is also entitled to 30 percent of the deceased parent’s earnings-related pension base.

Care Allowance. Parents of disabled or handicapped children are entitled to a cash allowance to enable them to take care of their child. The benefit level is related to the child's needs.

A Housing Allowance (see below) is provided to low-wage families with children where there is a need for a certain size or standard or housing. The allowance takes into account such factors as composition of household and housing space.

Social Assistance is a means-tested cash benefit available to those in need of a safety net. About 4 percent claimed assistance in 2003. Couples with children constitute around 15 percent of recipient households and lone mothers around 25 percent (in 1995). (Single individuals are the largest group and constitute about 60 percent of the caseload.) About 1/3 of all lone mothers claimed assistance in 1995, primarily because of unemployment. Social assistance is intended to be an aid for persons in temporary financial need, but in recent years the period of dependence on assistance has increased especially among lone mothers, young unemployed, and refugees, and there is some discussion in Sweden about this.

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Child and Adolescent Health

The health status of Swedish children is excellent. Infant mortality rates are low, childhood mortality due to illness is low, the mortality rates of children due to accidents is among the lowest in the world, teen out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion rates are very low. Nonetheless, there are some concerns: According to a 2005 report, the rates of daily or almost daily smoking prevalence for boys and girls in grade 9  were 5 and 13 percent, respectively,  for that year. Smoking prevalence was 18 percent among boys and 30 percent among girls. Alcohol use appears to be increasing among youth. There is also concern about rising rates of asthma and allergies.

There is free health care for pregnant mothers and children under school age in the municipalities in the form of "maternal care centers" and "childcare centers." The care is mostly preventive. One obligatory check-up for all children is the 4-year examination. The results suggest that there are significant differences in the health and development of children by socio-economic status.

Since 1998, families with children, regardless of income, no longer have to pay fees for health care services. Since the 1970s the municipalities have established special health centers for adolescent boys and girls focused on the prevention of poor health, providing information about sex, and preventing teenage pregnancies and sexual diseases. Children can use these centers at any age and can obtain counseling services as well, especially during times of crises (parents' divorce, child abuse). All tests are free. Access to contraceptives is available to all, free of charge. And the general rule is that children are granted secrecy, even from their parents or authorities, unless the child is in need of protection. All children are entitled to school health care free of charge, again with a stress on preventive health care and to help with information, advice, and provision of contraceptives.

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School-Aged Children: Policies and Programs

Sweden is among the few countries with national data regarding coverage of school-aged children in such programs. About three-quarters of six- to nine-year-olds are enrolled in after-school programs, which consist of "leisure time centers",, family day-care homes, and open out-of-school services. Most attend the centers, which are often linked with preschool programs, and involve income-related fees. Open out-of-school services are for children between the ages of 10 and 12 who do not need the care and supervision provided in the centers and family day-care homes.


Housing Benefits

Housing allowance is a means-tested benefit, the only such benefit apart from social assistance. In contrast to the general trend towards devolution, in 1994 the national government took over the responsibility for housing allowance from the localities. Families with children as well as spouses and single persons are entitled to housing allowance, if they are Swedish residents. It exists in two main forms:

  • The income tested housing allowance that varies according to age, income, housing cost, and the number of children;
  • Rent payments, which are fully covered for social assistance claimants with a supplement to the housing allowance.

It is a tax-free benefit and plays an important role in the incomes of modest and low-income families. In the mid-1990s it was reduced somewhat, eligibility criteria were more sharply targeted on low-income families, and it was made more restrictive. There is concern that the reform will have negative consequences for families with children and thus it is being closely monitored. Nearly 30 percent of Swedish households with children received a housing allowance in 2001, largely single mothers (Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, 2002). The scheme benefits 82 percent of lone parent households (OECD, 2007).

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Full-time upper secondary pupils are eligible for financial support through the first half of the calendar year in which they turn 20. Universal monthly student grants are given to all pupils without application, and means-tested extra grants and, under certain conditions, grants for boarders, are also available. The student grant currently amounts to about US 174 (Ministry of Education and Research, 2008).

Click here to view in PDF format a table on the Ages at which children are legally entitled to carry out a series of acts in the European Union. See Youth Policies section for definition of terms used.


Reconciliation of Work and Family Life

The general culture in Sweden stresses the importance of maintaining a balance between work and family life. Government policies support this, in particular the extensive system of subsidized early childhood education and care, and the extensive and generous parental leave policies including post childbirth, post adoption, and sick-child policies. Employers must adapt to these policies and apparently have done so.

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Bernhardt, E. (2003). "Key Family Issues in Sweden," in Key Family Issues in the EU Member States: Summary Reports. European Observatory on the Social Situation, Demography and Family.

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Ditch, J., Barnes, H., &Bradshaw, J. (Eds.). (1998). Developments in national family policies in 1996. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities.

Ditch, J., Barnes, H., &Bradshaw, J. (Eds.). (1996). Developments in national family policies in 1995. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities.

Greve, B. (1999). Economic support to families with children: A comparison of five welfare states. Roskilde, Denmark: Roskilde University.

Gunnarsson, L., et al. (1999). Early childhood education and care policy in Sweden. Paris: OECD.

Kamerman, S.B. (1998). Early childhood education and care: An overview of developments in the OECD Countries. Paris: OECD.

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Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs (2003). Swedish Family Policy. Fact Sheets No. 14, Sept. 2003.

Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs (2002). Swedish family policy. Fact Sheets on Sweden, No. 5. Stockholm: Author.

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UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. (2005). A league table of child poverty in rich nations. Innocenti Report Card, 6. Florence, Italy: UNICEF.


Washington Embassy

  • Embassy of Sweden
  • 2900 K Street, NW
  • Washington, DC 20007
  • Phone: (202) 467-2600
  • Fax: (202) 467-2699


  • Registrator, Senior Registry Clerk
  • Ministry of Health and Social Affairs
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