[Outlook]Following Finland

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[Outlook]Following Finland

Johanna Kolhonen, 38, is a working mom in Finland. She has two daughters, one 5 years old and the other 3. She took two 11-month maternity leaves for each baby, once before she gave birth and once after. When she went back to work, her husband took paternity leave for one year for each child.

In Finland, when a baby is born, each parent can take parental leave of up to three years. There are public day care centers for newborn babies nearly everywhere, but most parents take care of their babies until they turn 2.

Kolhonen’s older daughter has a speech impediment. The daughter has two sessions of speech therapy and one session of physical therapy per week. The state pays for the treatment through her insurance. Kolhonen and her daughter regularly see a child neurology specialist and the doctor runs a variety of tests on the daughter, including X-rays, MRIs and genetic tests. Every time, Kolhonen pays only 22 euros ($34) as an administrative fee. Tests and treatments are covered by the public health insurance scheme.

There is no reason to lament that it is difficult to work while raising children or that it is difficult to be a parent of a child with disabilities. Instead, Kolhonen says she’s blessed. She never feels like she’s losing money when she pays taxes.

In Finland, people pay up to 50 percent of their income in taxes, a very high rate even by European standards. But the Finns don’t complain about it because they are sure that their money is not wasted, and goes toward improving the people’s standard of living.

A good example showing how well taxpayer money is spent is the country’s education system. It costs nothing to get an education, from elementary school all the way to university. That’s because of the national consensus that people shouldn’t be blocked from getting an education because they are poor. As education is the only means for individuals to climb up the rungs of the social ladder, everybody must be given an equal chance, they believe.

Education is free, but it is far from low-quality. Most teachers hold master’s or doctoral degrees. Finland’s education system is well known for its competitiveness. Expatriates are eligible to get the same benefits as long as they pay taxes. Many people from neighboring countries move to Finland to get an education there.

I felt like Alice in Wonderland when I was in Finland for business, interviewing people. As a person who came from a country where people worry social welfare will hinder economic growth, it was hard to believe that in Finland, the balance between social welfare and economic growth is very real.

Finland is a large country but its population is merely 5.3 million. The balance has been attained thanks to abundant forestry resources and the telecommunications company Nokia.

If Korea pursued the same policy, perhaps it would make things difficult for the people, because the country has few natural resources but a population of 50 million.

However, there are very important lessons that we shouldn’t miss. The keys for us are education and health care.

In 2006, the University of Leicester in England produced the World Map of Happiness. Denmark topped the list, followed by Switzerland, Austria and Iceland. Finland was sixth and Sweden seventh. The common denominator among these happy countries were quality education and a good health-care system.

That concept was well in evidence in Finland. People get educated free of charge and medical services for nominal fees. Thanks to these two factors, people live happily despite long, dark, depressing winters. They boast with confidence that it is like winning a lottery to have been born in Finland.

Around the time when the happy countries list was released, another survey found that most British people want a government that makes the people happy rather than one that makes the people rich.

Let’s take a look at the situation in Korea. Costs for private education are soaring and so are university tuition fees. Still, hardly anyone is satisfied with the quality of education.

The state-run health insurance fund has long been running at a deficit. People are worried whether the insurance system will cover them if they run into difficulties. But the so-called leaders of the country talk about privatizing the health insurance scheme and having all school classes taught in English.

As members of the government talk without thinking, the people head out into the streets with candles in their hands.

The government must seriously think about how to make the people happy before they think about how the people can become rich. The keys are, once again, education and health care.

*The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shin Ye-ri

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