The Other Side of the Danish Welfare State
September 6, 2019
Over the past few years, I have seen a lot of articles shared on social media about the Scandinavian welfare state. I think it is natural, when there are problems in our own society, to look to the models of other societies for a solution. We will often find some good ideas in those models. These articles that people love to share look at the positive aspects of the welfare state—everyone gets health care, everyone gets an education, everyone gets a vacation—romanticizing the system while glossing over its pitfalls. If you want to see the pitfalls and drawbacks, you have to search for them yourself. As with any government program, there are Danes who agree with the welfare state and those who do not. What the romanticizers neglect to tell you is that the Danish model no longer works the way it used to, as a recent Reuters article by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen illustrates. In the interest of being more fully informed, I would like to show you another side of the Danish welfare state.
As I’ve mentioned before, my mom is a Danish immigrant. While she decided to become an American citizen, her parents and sister opted to come to the United States on green cards. Mormor and Morfar retired in Denmark before coming to America. Morfar received his Danish pension until his death and Mormor continues to receive hers. Roughly 40% of her Danish income goes back to the state in taxes. It would be more, but she called her government and pointed out that she doesn’t drive on Danish roads or use Danish health care. They refused to drop it any lower, though. Mormor no longer benefits from Danish welfare, but she continues to pay for it.
It’s true that if you are in Denmark and need an emergency medical procedure, it will be done at no cost. If the procedure is elective or a non-emergency, you will be put on a waiting list. It used to be that you could wait months for treatment, but recent changes have made it so that, if your hospital’s wait time is more than a month, you can go to a hospital where the wait is shorter. There are rules governing which doctors you can choose for treatment. Many Danes are starting to buy private insurance and go to private hospitals to avoid the long wait times.
As for education, my mom left secondary school in favor of apprenticeships. From what Mormor tells me, my aunt’s move to America was initiated when she became tired of going to school every day without being taught very much. In the 1960s and ‘70s, it wasn’t uncommon for students to spend the day playing card games. In his book A History of Denmark, Knud J.V. Jespersen says that, in Denmark, “the level of ambition is relatively lower than in the educational systems of many other Western European countries. This is true throughout the entire system from primary school to university…. [T]he Achilles’ heel of the Grundtvigian educational system [is exposed]: its enormous focus on mediocrity, which certainly means that no one falls out at the bottom, but also ensures that no one excels” (121).
The most interesting points I’ve learned about the welfare state actually come from Jespersen’s book. I have always been interested in history, especially my own. I like to know where my family came from. Danish history options in English are limited, but I was fortunate to find A History of Denmark. I didn’t realize how much I would learn about the welfare state (and why it wouldn’t work in the United States), but once I read Jespersen’s explanation of the system, I knew his points needed to be shared.
A little background on Denmark. Hundreds of years ago, it was a great world power. Denmark controlled much of Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea trade. But over the centuries, it has been whittled down to the small country that it is today. The population of Denmark is about 5.8 million. By comparison, the US population is just over 327 million. Denmark is between the size of Maryland and West Virginia. 87% of the population is of Danish descent.
As I said before, this book not only taught me about the welfare state, but also why it wouldn’t work in the United States. Jespersen names three criteria for making the Danish model work. First, the economy of the society must continue to grow. “In principle the social, health and educational requirements of the welfare society are infinite,” he says. “However, the means to finance these requirements are finite” (86). We often hear how strong the American economy is at the moment, so you may think that this isn’t a problem. Our economy is good for some, but not for all. There are also occasional dips and recessions in our economy, which cause problems in a welfare state.
“The second assumption,” Jespersen states, “…is that the citizens of the country are fairly homogenous in economic circumstances and culture, that the social divides are narrow, and that the population as a whole share inherent feelings of solidarity and ideals of equality which are the real foundation of the whole welfare system” (87). While we strive to give everyone in America equality, the diversity of our culture is part of our identity. Immigration is what we were built on, long before it became such a contentious social and political issue. In Denmark, the immigration of recent decades has strained the Danish welfare system and created problems that they are having a hard time fixing. We also have cultural differences in the United States based on geography—East vs. West, North vs. South, Northwest vs. Midwest, etc. How could such a large and diverse country follow the same model as a country that could fit inside of it more than 200 times? The rich seem to be getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. This kind of gap cannot exist if the system of welfare is going to work properly.
The third point, according to Jespersen, is that the country’s citizens need to have a deep trust in their government and its ability to provide security for as many people as possible (87). How much do I really need to say here? Polls from the Pew Research Center show that, at the moment, only 17% of Americans trust the government. From my perspective, the voice of the majority is often drowned out by the voice of the minority and politicians aren’t really listening to either of them.
Having had three children within the past 4 ½ years, I know the stress of paying medical bills. I also see how medical costs affect my friends and family. The same applies to educational debt. But I don’t believe the Danish, or the broader Nordic, welfare model—models built for countries very different from ours—would work in the United States. Welfare needs to be a choice, and I don’t see enough Americans willing to make that choice.
Jespersen, Knud J.V. A History of Denmark, translated by Ivan Hill and Christopher Wade, 2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.