‘Iranian pages’ rings in integration in Sweden

Liberal commentator Nima Sanandaji explains how the Swedish-Iranian yellow pages helps the integration of the Iranian community, with almost two thirds of its children in higher education.

'Iranian pages' rings in integration in Sweden

The yellow pages used to be a key source of information for Swedish households. For many families it has become a thing of the past. But there is one great exception. Rahnama, the yellow pages of the Iranian-Swedish community, has 30,000 copies distributed in Sweden, as well as in Oslo and Copenhagen. Those who are interested in understanding how successful integration can happen in Sweden should glance over this 300-page booklet, where advertisers reach out in a mix of Persian and Swedish.

Close to one percent of Sweden’s population has either emigrated from Iran or has both parents born in there. But although the Iranians who came to Sweden were somewhat more educated than even the Swedes themselves, they have faced considerable challenges entering the labour market. The majority of Iranians migrated during the 1980s. But as late as 1999, a study showed that a third of Iranian families was still dependent on welfare. Another third had some work income, but was mainly supported by the state. Only one third was chiefly supported by their own, often low, salaries.

This is of course hardly a good outcome for a group composed to a large degree of an ambitious and well-educated middle class, which had arrived with high hopes for the future and plenty of labour market experience. And it is far from the prosperous outcomes that similar groups of Iranian immigrants have achieved relatively quickly in Canada.

For many Iranian families, the journey to Sweden meant going from dictatorship to democracy. But also falling down the class ladder. Nearly all young Iranians in Sweden have grown up in families supported by either welfare or by low incomes from work – often a combination of both. This is the definition of “child poverty” used by the Swedish Save the Children organization. Many young Iranian-Swedes have grown up in social exclusion, in low income neighbourhoods with failing schools. Some have become trapped in social and economic poverty. But remarkably, most are on their way to the top of society.

If you look through the Iranian-Swedish community’s yellow pages you might get a sense of why such a remarkable feat has been achieved. Some of the ads are about private tutoring.

Their market is parents who are willing to pay extra so that their children can better their scores in maths or learn to improve their handwriting. This reflects a culture which, even in families struggling to become accepted members of Swedish society, puts much emphasis on attaining a higher education as a route to success. If we look at the statistics, we can see that young Iranians are indeed succeeding academically. Out of those aged 25 years in Sweden, merely 37 percent with immigrant origin have begun studying at higher education. The corresponding figure for native Swedes is 45 percent. Young Iranians, however, top the list, as 60 percent of them have begun academic studies at the age of 25.

When you read through the Iranian-Swedish yellow pages it also becomes evident that the group as a whole must have considerable purchasing power. How else would printing the booklet even pay off? Even many among the first generation of Iranians have finally been able to shake free from welfare dependency.

To understand how, we can again look through the yellow pages. Most of the ads seem to have been placed there by Iranian business owners in Sweden. Many are targeting various services to other business owners. Realizing how difficult it is to enter the rigid Swedish labour market – characterized by high effective minimum wages, labour regulations and high taxes – many Iranians have over time turned to their bazaari culture. Starting own businesses, and working hard to expand them, has been the path to self-reliance for many in the group. Today, many of the young high-achieving entrepreneurs in Sweden are of Iranian origin.

The story of how successful integration can occur in even Sweden is out there to read. Just open the Iranian-Swedish yellow pages.

Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin with a PhD in polymer technology. He has written numerous books and reports about subjects such as integration, entrepreneurship, and women’s career opportunities. He is a regular contributor to The Local. One of his books, Från fattigdom till framgång (“From Poverty to Success”) deals with the success story of Iranian integration in Sweden.

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‘Swedes need to save to tackle wealth disparity’

Uneven wealth distribution in Sweden can be put down in part to a lack of safe assets among individual Swedes, says liberal commentator Nima Sanandaji, who argues that politicians should encourage people to engage in investments to fight the disparity.

'Swedes need to save to tackle wealth disparity'
Beggar and woman with shopping bags: Shutterstock
French economist Thomas Piketty has gained significant attention for his new book Capital In The Twenty-First Century, recently translated into English after its original publication in French last year. The focus of the book is the issue of economic inequality. One of the main points is that wealth tends to be much more unevenly distributed than incomes. 
Piketty fears that capital amassed during previous generations will grow faster than the economy as a whole, so that a small handful of families end up owning much of the wealth. If this happens, the French economist argues, "the past devours the future".
Much of our knowledge about wealth distribution comes from recent academic studies. And their results are quite shocking. One of the more ambitious studies of wealth distribution has shown that Sweden has the most uneven wealth distribution amongst the seven countries for which data exist. Why is it that Sweden, which has long had an equal distribution of incomes, has an unusually unequal distribution of wealth?
The explanation lies in the fact that many Swedish households have limited or no privately held safe nets.
A report by the Swedish Taxpayers' Association (Skattebetalarna) from 2009 showed that around 30 percent of Swedish households had negative, or zero, assets. Another roughly 20 percent of households had asset levels that corresponded to around one month's salary for a normal household. The low level of household savings in Sweden has likely resulted from a situation where families have relied on the public sector to provide an all-inclusive safety net. However, it never hurts to have some savings in addition to public insurance systems.
Encouraging private savings amongst the broader public is one way to combat inequality. Society can in many ways benefit from a situation where ordinary people control a significant share of the capital. The ability to rely on your own savings, or borrow from friends, for example, increases the possibilities of realizing a business venture. And in the long-run even moderate investments can give a healthy contribution to the family budget.
There are ways for politicians to encourage savings among the broader public. Legislation could for example allow young people to deduct taxes from the first nest egg they save for investments in the stock market, in their first home or in their first business. The first step should be to open up a debate about how a more egalitarian capital ownership can be fostered. 
After all, much of the rise of income inequality in the world is driven by the fact that those with high incomes invest much of their money, and gain long-term incomes from this investment. Shouldn't a political response be to encourage broader groups to engage in investments?
Nima Sanandaji is a regular op-ed contributor to The Local. His latest book is called “Renaissance for Reforms”, co-authored with Stefan Fölster.