WELFARE

When the bough breaks

Crisis in Denmark’s cradle-to-grave system

MICHAEL ROSE January 9 1989
WELFARE

When the bough breaks

Crisis in Denmark’s cradle-to-grave system

MICHAEL ROSE January 9 1989

When the bough breaks

WELFARE

Crisis in Denmark’s cradle-to-grave system

Thomas Sander is energetic and only 29—but he will never have to work again. Each month, the Danish government sends him a so-called pension cheque for 4,800 kroner ($835). Sander uses part of that payment to cover monthly rent of 900 kroner ($150) on a single room in a well-maintained Copenhagen residence built for those who the state says are in need of shelter.

Sander is a former heroin addict with little education and no job skills, and he is one of about 4,000 Danes under the age of 35 who, since 1984, have received financial assistance for what the Danish government calls “social reasons.” Government officials say that such money is given to young people only when their situations appear hopeless and when all other options have been eliminated.

Still, critics say that cases like Sander’s merely serve to underline some of the critical problems now plaguing Denmark’s cradle-to-grave social welfare system. Said Henning Friis, a prominent Danish social scientist: “We may have tried to buy off our social problems here, without going to the root of what causes such problems.”

Denmark’s extensive welfare state has for decades been a model for similar, though less costly, systems in other industrialized nations.

Denmark’s first democratic constitution established public assistance as a right in 1849. Since then, the small industrial and agricultural nation of 5.1 million on West Germany’s northern border has developed a network designed to protect Danes during every phase of their lives. Basic education and health care are free. When Danes lose their jobs, they can receive up to 90 per cent of their former salaries, in some cases for years. As well, thousands of other citizens receive financial assistance, almost without time limits or conditions. The cost of such generosity in 1986 was more than $16 billion, or almost half of the Danish federal government’s spending.

In spite of the billions spent, mounting social

problems are an intractable part of Danish life. A study that the Danish National Institute of Social Research conducted in 1987 found that approximately 30,000 Danes could be considered in the researchers’ words “down and outs”—homeless, usually alcoholics or drug

addicts, and entirely dependent on welfare payments for survival. Until recently, Denmark had not attempted to count such people, but the institute’s study estimated that the current figure is two to three times higher than at the beginning of the decade. The study also found that a further 120,000 to 150,000 Danes—mainly single mothers, the unemployed and unskilled workers with large families—faced serious economic hardship, with many of them living in crowded, damp apartments and with little hope of improving their standard of living. Between June, 1986, and June, 1988, 33,800 families began receiving social assistance, bringing the total to 166,500 families.

Other social problems appear to be resistant to the large expenditures of the state. Denmark’s suicide rate is one of the highest in the world, with more than 100 Danes killing themselves each month, a rate of .27 per 1,000, or more than three times higher than Canada’s. Alcohol and drug abuse, pornography and prostitution are clearly visible on the streets of Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital. Said Alice Rieland, a social worker in the city’s run-down Vesterbro neighborhood: “I see people having more trouble, not less. I don’t think the government realizes how serious things are becoming.”

Sociologists and government officials say that the failures of the system may result from the fact that it was designed to deal with shortterm problems. But, like many European nations, Denmark is currently facing the problem of long-term unemployment. The overall unemployment rate in Denmark is nearly nine per cent—compared with Canada’s 7.8 per cent— but, more importantly, of those without work, about 10 per cent have been unemployed for more than 40 weeks. “I believe that you can contribute to a problem by being too generous,” said Kartsen Dybvad, an economist with Landsorganisationen, Denmark’s largest labor federation. Dybvad and other critics say that what is needed is a way of halting the downward spiral experienced by people who have been shut out of mainstream society for too long.

Such concerns have become guiding principles for Prime Minister Poul Schluter’s coalition Conservative government, which took power in 1982 after nine years of rule by the country’s Social Democratic Party. Determined to wipe out Denmark’s $4.4-billion budget deficit, the Conservatives imposed a freeze on social assistance payments soon after taking office. This year, payments will be kept below the inflation rate. Now, Schluter’s government is planning further measures aimed at reducing government spending, while responding to criticism that the existing social welfare system fosters dependency. In a new initiative, unemployed and unskilled Danes will be encouraged—but not forced—to take retraining courses after receiving unemployment benefits Q for one year. The government also plans to £ introduce a three-year program to encourage 5 urban neighborhoods and regions in the countryside to develop their own methods for solving social problems instead of depending on government largesse. Aase Olesen, Denmark’s social affairs minister, told Maclean’s:. “Until now, we have forgotten to think of the whole person and his place in society. People will once again have to start taking responsibility for themselves and for others.”

Some observers say that the government’s hope of solving its welfare problems by promoting a sense of self-reliance and self-esteem among Danes may not be enough. But for Danes who face a lifetime of state-financed dependency, anything that helps to restore them to full membership in Danish society may be a welcome development.

MICHAEL ROSE in Copenhagen