News & Politics

Here Are Six Reasons Why the Poor Are Much Better Off in Europe Than in the U.S.

Poverty can be much more painful in the U.S. than in European social democracies.

Photo Credit: Matthew Woitunski

The name “Bernie Sanders” can inspire very different reactions in Germany, France or Sweden than it inspires in the U.S. While the Vermont senator and self-described “socialist” is considered hard-left or radical by Republicans and even by some neoliberal Democrats, Europeans tend to view him as simply a New Deal liberal rather than someone with genuinely Marxist ideas. And the Washington Monthly’s Gilad Edelman ponders just how far to the left Sanders and his supporters really are in the publication’s July/August issue and poses the question: are Sanders’ young supporters really just New Deal liberals?

One thing Sanders clearly has in common with many European politicians is the fact that he is extremely uncomfortable with countries having widespread poverty—and while he doesn’t necessarily believe poverty can be eliminated altogether, he favors programs that aggressively combat it. Unfortunately, the U.S. is moving in the opposite direction in the Donald Trump era, and the policies of the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress are conducive to harming the poor rather than helping them.

Here are six reasons why poverty—although painful all over the developed world—can be much more painful in the U.S. than in the European social democracies that Sanders and his supporters admire.

1. Job Training 

In Europe, there has been a heavy emphasis on education and job training; Germany, for example, is renowned for its apprenticeship programs. And according to Carl Melin of the Swedish think tank Futurion, Sweden’s system of retraining workers is “better than those in most countries.” But in the U.S., education can be cost-prohibitive. The U.S.’ poor simply can’t afford the educational programs they need to acquire new job skills, whereas in Germany or Sweden, the poor have easier access to job-training programs that will make their lives better.

2. Unions

 The labor movement did a lot to expand the American middle class in the 1940s and 1950s, but in the Trump era, unionization rates are at historic lows: only 10.7% of the U.S. workforce is unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in Europe, unionization rates range from 67% in Sweden and 55% in Belgium to 37.3% in Italy—and union members are much less likely to be poor. As long as the U.S. continues embracing anti-union right-to-work laws, its working poor will be more likely to remain in poverty.

 3. Health Care

Even with the gains of the Affordable Care Act of 2010—which President Trump and Republicans in Congress have fought to overturn—the U.S. is infamous for its medical bankruptcies and having millions of people without health insurance. Europe, however, has universal healthcare; so even the poorest Europeans can see a doctor when they need to. Until the U.S.’ brings about universal care health care, America’s poor will continue to be sicker and unhealthier than their European counterparts. 

4. Taxes 

When the Republican-crafted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—which lowered the U.S.’ corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent—was signed into law by President Trump, proponents of trickle-down economics argued that corporations would generously share the savings with employees. But according to economist Robert Reich, almost all the extra money has been going into stock buybacks instead of wage increases for employees. In other words, the tax cut does nothing for America’s poor or lower middle class—whereas in European countries, tax dollars are much more likely to go to social programs that help the poor. In Sweden, the top 15% of wage earners pay a marginal income tax rate of 56%, and those taxes fund education, job training and other things that help lift the poor out of poverty.  

 5. Incarceration

The U.S. incarcerates, per capita, more of its people than any other country in the world—and the private prison industry has been booming under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Prison/Industrial Complex has done a lot to promote poverty in the U.S.: poor Americans are likely to remain poor after facing incarceration and having a criminal record. But in Norway—a country Sanders and his supporters believes the U.S. should emulate—an emphasis on job training and rehabilitation for prisoners is making it less likely for them to become repeat offenders. In 2016, a study by the University of Bergen found that job training programs for Norwegian prisoners were making them 46% less likely to become repeat offenders. 

6. Education 

Education doesn’t have to mean attending a university and acquiring a college degree; trade schools that sharpen blue-collar job skills can also be an excellent educational tool. But in the U.S., education can carry a very high price tag—which is why so many millennials are buried in heavy student loan debt and why the poor don’t take more vocational courses. As long as America’s poor lack access to education, they are more likely to remain in poverty. Making education more accessible was one of the main themes of Sanders’ 2016 campaign. In Europe, quality education is more accessible, and that is one of the reasons why Europe now has greater upward mobility than the U.S.    

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.