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Why discuss poverty in Sweden?

This article is written by a master student and reflects their individual perspectives and opinions. It does not constitute an official representation of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. The content provided here is for educational and informational purposes only, and readers should be aware that it does not necessarily align with the official position of the institute. Readers are encouraged to independently verify information and seek guidance from appropriate academic authorities when necessary. The authors bear full responsibility for the content presented in this blog and any potential consequences resulting from it.

Isabelle comes from Växjö in the southern part of Sweden and she has studied law at Lund University. She is currently in the second year of the International Human Rights Law Master’s programme. Isabelle is especially interested in the connection between Environmental Law and International Humanitarian Law, but also women’s rights and the human rights approach to poverty reduction. 

We are amid the darkest and coldest period of the year with Christmas around the corner. Christmas is a holiday of happiness and joy for many people but for others, Christmas is a challenging time, particularly for those living in poverty. The latest report from Statistics Sweden shows that only around three percent of people over 16 live in material and social deprivation in Sweden and this is the lowest percentage in the EU. Why should we then care about poverty in Sweden?

The latest statistics from Statistics Sweden are from 2021 and show that the income development in Sweden has regained its power after the Corona pandemic and that Swedish households in 2021 were in a good position.  Furthermore, statistics from the National Board of Health and Welfare show that social assistance in society had decreased during 2022. One could argue based on this that the economic situation in Sweden is great and that poverty is therefore not worth discussing.

There are however other statistics that show another side of the Swedish economy. Firstly, the income differences in 2021 were the greatest since the start of the measurements. This together with the trend in income development shows that already wealthy people are becoming wealthier. Secondly, scholars argue that the reason behind the decrease in social assistance is not because the need for social assistance has decreased but rather because fewer applications are accepted. The same scholars also argue that the subsidies that are paid out today are smaller than the subsidies 25 years ago. Thirdly, a report from the Swedish shelter organisation, Sveriges Stadsmissioner, shows that the distribution of food by the shelters is increasing drastically.

Another worrying aspect of poverty in Sweden is that social and material poverty is seven times more common among people born outside of Sweden compared to people born in Sweden. This difference between people born in the country and outside the country is the greatest in the EU. Of even greater concern is the fact that the difference between children born in Sweden compared to children born outside of Sweden is even greater. Statistics Sweden shows that in 2019 16 percent of children born in Sweden had low economic standards compared to 54 percent among children born outside of Sweden.

From a human rights perspective

“Poverty may be defined as a human condition characterized by sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.” – The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Human rights and poverty are closely related to each other, and poverty will for instance affect a person’s right to an adequate standard of living, adequate food, and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States have an obligation to take steps towards the full realization of these economic, social, and cultural rights. However, depending on whether states have the resources or not the realization of the rights must not be attained immediately but can be attained over time. The state must on the other hand show that they have taken steps to fulfil the rights, and this includes steps on tackling poverty.

As mentioned above, the statistics from Sweden point to an increase in poverty.  The world situation and the ongoing problem with inflation are part of the reason behind the increase and this cannot be blamed on the Swedish state. On the other hand, the fact that some studies show that the security net, in the form of social assistance, has become weaker is something that goes against Sweden´s obligations. Furthermore, based on the increase in income together with the increase in income inequality it can be questioned whether Sweden does enough to prevent poverty.

Lastly, the right to an adequate standard of living, adequate food, and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health should be exercised without discrimination. The significant difference in the statistics between people born in Sweden and those born outside of Sweden raises the question of whether Sweden does enough to ensure these rights to people born outside of Sweden who now live in Sweden.


Bergmark, Å. Stranz, H. A safety net for all? – Vignette-based assessment of Swedish social assistance over three decades. Journal of Social policy. 2023-03-20

Committee on Economic, Social, and cultural Rights. Substantive issues arising in the implementation of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights: poverty and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. 2001

Socialstyrelsen. Statistik om ekonomiskt bistånd 2022. 2023-06-14

Statistiska Centralbyrån. Fattigdom nästan sju gånger vanligare bland utrikesfödds. , 2022-10-17

Statistiska Centralbyrån. Stark inkomstutveckling under 2021, men ökande skillnader. 2023-01-25

Statistiska Centralbyrån. Över hälften av alla barn födda utomlands lever med låg ekonomisk standard. 2021-05-11

Sveriges Stadsmissioner.  Fattigdomsrapporten 2023. . Rapport 9/2023

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner. Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. 2012

Click to read more Student Perspectives on Human Rights

Photo by Ruslan Khimrad on Unsplash

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