Since Senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president nearly 10 months ago, his platform of democratic socialism has been repeatedly attacked for its supposed unfeasibility and lofty goals. While his opponents on the Republican side have given little time to even humor his proposals, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come out strongly against many of them, including universal healthcare and free college tuition for public universities. While doubting the “political feasibility” of paid maternity leave back in 2014, Secretary Clinton has since reversed her position on the subject but doubts Senator Sanders ability to push such legislation through a Republican-held Congress.
The Sanders campaign does acknowledge the loftiness of its goals but points to similar polices in the rest of the industrialized world to help support its claims. Senator Sanders points out that “every other major country” has paid family leave, that tuition-free college “exists in countries all over the world”, and how “[the United States is] the only major country on earth that doesn't guarantee health care to all people as a right.” Senator Sanders has hinged most of his campaign on these international comparisons, which begs the question, how does the United States actually stack up against the rest of the world fare on these socioeconomic topics?
When looking at universal healthcare, the Sanders campaign has a strong case for changing the United States to a single payer system. Currently, the United States is one of two OECD (Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development) nation, the other being Mexico, who lack universal health care (meaning at least 90% of all citizens are insured) and one of two, the other being Australia, that does not have a law guaranteeing health care for every citizen. It’s estimated this lack of coverage leads to 20,000-45,000 deaths annually, and while the Affordable Care Act has brought affordable insurance to millions, 30 million Americans still lack health insurance. Additionally, the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is an unexpected extended stay in the hospital.
Furthermore, America’s health care system ranks 37th globally according to the World Health Organization. The U.S. ranks 43rd in life expectancy and 167th in infant mortality even though it pays more for health care, per capita, than any other nation. Based on OECD estimates, the United States spends $8,745 per capita on health care, around 17% of its GDP annually. The next highest nation (Norway) only spends $6,140. Taking the rest of the world into consideration illustrates that other nations seem to be able to provide better care, to nearly all of their citizens, for a greatly reduced price.
Another major platform of the Sanders campaign is paid family leave. Currently, the United State is one of two nations on Earth that offers no form of paid maternity leave; the other is Papua New Guinea. We are also one of nine OECD nations that does not offer any form of paid paternity leave. Around the world, there are vary degrees of paid paternity and maternity, with nations like Iran offering six months of fully paid maternity leave while Estonia offers an astounding 62 weeks of fully paid maternity leave. However, paternity leave is not as comprehensive with nations like Saudi Arabia, which offers 10 weeks of maternity leave, while only offering fathers a single day. That being said, Finland offers fathers 11 months of fully paid paternity leave.
In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees parents 12 weeks of unpaid paternity or maternity leave. Senator Sanders is interested in changing this to 12 weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave. Many critics have claimed such a program would bankrupt companies, but studies in states that already implement such leave show that the cost equates to only around $30 a person. Additional studies have shown, in both foreign countries and states that mandate paid family leave, that such leave lead to an increase in wages, greater job security, and even greater fertility rates. Given the almost unanimous consensus on paid family leave in the rest of the world, it seems Senator Sanders is in good company with his proposals.
A final issue of focus from Senator Sanders is free college tuition at public universities. Unlike paid family leave and universal health care, college tuition less of a clear-cut issue when the United States is compared to rest of the world. It cannot be denied that the United States faces a major crisis when it comes to student loan debt and the rising cost of a college education. Currently, the combined student loan debt in the United States is somewhere around $1.2 trillion, the average debt per student hovering near $28,950 and 60% of students have some form of student loan debt upon graduation. Average tuition and fees at in-state public universities in the U.S. was $8,400 in 2013-2014, nearly $19,100 for those paying out-of-state tuition, and $30,500 at private colleges. On average, tuition prices rise around 4% each year.
However, looking at the rest of the industrialized world doesn’t offer many solutions. While the United State’s average tuition price is around $8,400, the United Kingdom’s prices come in around $13,500 making it the highest in the world despite government-mandated caps. For the rest of the OECD, most nations tuition prices are around $1,000-2,000 but there are outliers such as Japan ($5,000) and Australia ($4,000). Additionally, while only 60% of students take out loans in the United States, around 80% take out loans in nations like Sweden or Australia. This is in part because in nations like Sweden, who offer free tuition, students are forced take out loans to pay for living expenses. 40 nations, such as Finland, Scotland, and Germany, have done away with tuition fees altogether. However, this can lead to shortfalls in funding to universities themselves. In the end, free public college tuition is a one option to address a global problem, but in no way a solution.
Senator Sanders global outlook doesn’t just extended to these three topics, they do not solely define his campaign. Whether it’s expanding social security, raising the minimum wage, or action on climate change, Senator Sanders is looking outward to try and tackle some of the United States’ most pressing issues. This is, perhaps, his greatest strength. He does not doubt American ingenuity but acknowledges the need for outside ideas, admitting that while the United States is powerful and advanced, it is not perfect. Other people in other nations have faced similar problems and have, perhaps, found better solutions than we did. It’s a hard truth to swallow for many Americans but it is a truth nonetheless, that this is the 21st century and it’s time we join the rest of the world.