Viewpoint: The Danish Welfare State – Securing the middle classes, leaving the poor behind

Viewpoint: The Danish Welfare State – Securing the middle classes, leaving the poor behind

Peter Abrahamson

Welfare state development in Denmark is paradoxical: we have experienced a continuous penalizing of marginalised people through a reduction in provisions but a growing set of expectations, while simultaneously the entitlements for middle class citizens have been expanded (in relation to health care, family policy, higher education).

Usually Denmark is portrayed as a well-developed welfare state that takes care of its citizens from cradle to grave. It is viewed as a realization of Beveridge’s universal social policy principle, where citizenship or legal residence within the territory is a ticket to social rights for everyone. Denmark appears on top of indexes for happiness, human development, equality, and has low levels of poverty and social exclusion. This is the image that, for instance, US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders referred to as an inspiration for his own country, but it is partially a myth.

Denmark belongs to the Scandinavian welfare regime which, in the classification of Gøsta Esping-Andersen (1990, 1999), is a Social Democratic one, with a high degree of de-commodification and de-familization. However, one of the most important premises of the Scandinavian model is very high rates of employment, as many entitlements are connected to the labour market; making it a strongly commodified structure in fact. On the other hand, Denmark’s model is strongly shaped by a commitment to defamilization, through its focus on childcare and elderly care provisions. Alongside this anomaly, Danish society now has a significant minority of the population who are struggling to make ends meet and experiences discrimination, deteriorating living conditions and marginalization from mainstream society. The Danish welfare state is therefore perhaps best understood as a bifurcated one: a comprehensive system of universal risk management for the middle classes while simultaneously being experienced as a penalizing system of social control of the marginalized.

Penalizing the Poor
Officially, the aim of social assistance provision is to do away with poverty by helping those who have no other means of support. However, the level of support has been set so low that recipients of social assistance automatically fall below the poverty line. In Denmark, the only poor are those on public support. Rather than integrating poor people back into mainstream society, modern ‘poor laws’ deliberately marginalize vulnerable citizens and penalize them by demanding that they comply with all kinds of activities and behaviours in return for the ‘poor relief’ they receive such as attending classes, undergoing practical instructions, sheltered employment or job training and so forth. Furthermore, services are designed to be as unattractive as possible, so that citizens are discouraged to seek help (Abrahamson 2009).

In 2013 two new provisions were introduced – labelled the ‘resource process’ (ressourceforløb) and the ‘job-ability process’ (jobafklaringsforløb); both are part of a greater and greater emphasis in testing the ‘employability’ of marginal citizens and a deliberate attempt to postpone people seeking early retirement. These new initiatives have indeed reduced the number of people going into early retirement, especially on the voluntary early retirement scheme (efterløn) which has been reduced by half (CASA 2016). Also in 2013, the government stated that the period during which one could receive unemployment benefits (arbejdsløshedsdagpenge) would be reduced from four to two years. Thus, many unemployed were forced to transfer from the rights-based unemployment insurance scheme they were currently on, to a means-, need- and work-tested social assistance scheme.

Recently graduated young people who are unemployed have seen their benefits reduced to 71 per cent of what those on rights-based unemployment insurance receive; while for the first time in the history of Danish social policy – waiting days have been introduced. Waiting days are common within unemployment insurance systems, indicating that one is not entitled to benefits from the first day of unemployment. This means that if one is unemployed for four months one will be penalized with one waiting day; after eight months with another one, up to three days per year. This, like other changes, are meant to work as an incentive for people to ‘get off’ benefits, but research shows it has failed to achieve this aim. (CASA 2016.)

In 2016 the government introduced the so-called social assistance ceiling (kontanthjælpsloft), which set a limit on the total amount of help a family could receive from the public purse. Technically, social assistance levels were not reduced, but in reality, many families lost significant resources, when their housing allowance or other provisions were deducted from their social assistance.

Reactions to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees: Xenophobic Denmark
Most of the changes to social policy provisions and entitlements must be understood against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis. Already in 2002, the government introduced the so-called start help scheme (starthjælp), for people who had not lived in Denmark for seven out of the latest eight years.  These claimants were not eligible to receive the usual social assistance provision, but a benefit that was 30-40 per cent lower, similar in value to the student stipend (Statens Uddannelsesstøtte). It is still in operation today but has been re-named the ‘integration provision’ (integrationsydelse).

The motivation behind this scheme is that recipients will work harder to find employment or otherwise leave the scheme – i.e. by leaving Denmark.  However, research has not found any support for the claim that a more restrictive benefit will lead to increased employment rates among this group.  What research has found instead, is that the children of refugees struggle more with integration than prior to the introduction to the scheme – largely because they are now more likely to live in poverty (Landersø, Rockwool 2016).

A related and significant social welfare reform was also introduced in 2003, the so-called ‘apron-directive’ (forlædecirkulære). In cases where both partners in a household were on long-term social benefits, one partner’s benefit was to be replaced with a spouse’s supplement. The aim was to increase incentives to find work for families where both spouses were unemployed. ‘The underlying assumption appears to have been that in many migrant families, at least one of the spouses was not genuinely committed to be actively seeking work – in contrast, presumably to ‘Danish’ families where the norm is for both spouses to work (Brochman & Hagelund 2011).

While this raft of social welfare reforms were briefly suspended in 2012 when a more left-leaning party take over the government, following the re-election of the Conservatives in 2015, it has been re-introduced. Most recently a 225-hour rule was set out, so that those who cannot demonstrate they have worked for 225 hours within the last year will have their benefits reduced. Finally, child allowances can now also be cut or reduced in cases where parents do not follow up on the so-called parental orders (forældrepålæg), for example ensuring their children regularly attend school. ‘Again, the intended target group was migrant families who took their children to the countries of origin for extended periods of time’ (Brochman & Hagelund 2011: 19).

Hence, the provisions and services that have seen a significant reduction in monetary value and a more punitive approach to their enforcement over the past 15 years are those targeting marginalized citizens – in particular the unemployed, the long-term sick and perhaps most specifically – immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.  This development has seriously weakened the universal element seen for so long as the driving principle behind the Danish welfare state.  It has been replaced with a non-rights-based set of provisions that are applied through means- and needs-testing. This change has been broadly supported by Danish citizens.  In contrast, the Danish public increasingly supports extending benefits such as health care, elderly care and daycare (Jensen 2017). These are the kinds of entitlements the middle classes are most likely to take up and benefit from.

Engaged middle class citizens fighting for (even) better provision through the Danish welfare state
Over the last 15 years, Denmark has increasingly invested in universal health care (an opposite trend to that observed in other countries – such as the UK, US etc).  In October 2016, a ‘guarantee of treatment’ (behandlingsgaranti) was introduced, meaning a patient could expect to receive a diagnosis and have begun treatment for a health condition within 30 days. If the public health care system does not deliver on this promise, the patient has the right to seek treatment either abroad or within the private system (at the state’s expense). Patients in Denmark now also have the right to choose which hospital they want to be treated at. The healthcare provision has remained universal, there are no co-payments/out of pocket expenses, and no money is exchanged between patient and system.  The only criteria for access is legal residency within the country.  But the specific extensions detailed above have been driven by middle-class expectations.

Together with health care, elderly care uses up the majority of resources allocated to the welfare state (80%). In Denmark, elderly care is organized according to the principle: ‘as long as it is possible in one’s own home’ people are to be supported to live at home through the provision of home nursing and home help, plus meals-on-wheels, transport services etc. Although many Danes criticise the municipal system of home help, such extensive support for the older citizens of Denmark means more family members can continue to focus on their careers and own needs.

Childcare, like other Nordic countries, is also heavily invested in by the state, and predominantly benefits middle-class parents keen to return to work. Since the mid-1990s, Danish parents have enjoyed a guaranteed spot in a publicly-supported nursery, when their child turns one. Denmark has the highest rate of very young children in daycare (80%) in the world, and 3-6 year olds are all in free, all-day kindergarten provision. Combined with the fairly generous and universal child allowances, it is possible for most families to balance family and work life, which is demonstrated by the high female labour market participation rates while relatively high levels of fertility are maintained. Again, a trend not found elsewhere – even in other small welfare states such as Austria, Belgium or the Netherlands.

Denmark has, like all other European countries, experienced a steady expansion of welfare state entitlements, provisions and services over the past half a century. This is good news for those who thought that globalization and neoliberalism would lead to welfare states being dismantled or at least pulled back. In general, and certainly when compared to other countries (Abrahanmson 2015), the Danish welfare state is generous and has strong public support.  However, the past decade or two has seen a subtle but significant shift in who is entitled to what type of benefits and the way universal care and support is made available in inequitable ways.  This is starting to have a significant effect on relations of equality in a country that has so long prided itself on promoting trust and equality.

Abrahamson, P. (2015). ‘Chapter 2: Denmark in International Perspective.’ Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson, Morten Frederiksen and Jørgen Elm Larsen (eds.) Danish Welfare State in Risk Perspective. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 25-39.
Brochman, G. & Hagelund, A. (2011). Migrants in the Scandinavian welfare state: The emergence of a social policy problem. Nordic Journal of Migration Research 1(1): 13-24.
Center for Alternative Social Analysis (CASA)(2003, 2016). Social Årsrapport (various years).
Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity.
Jensen, C. (2017). Den store Valgundersøgelse refereret i Ugebladet A4. March 23rd.
Rockwool fondens forskningsenhed (2019). Starthjælp gør flygtninge til Danmarks fattigste.


Peter Abramson is associate professor of sociology at University of Copenhagen.  His research interests revolve around comparative studies of welfare state issues: poverty, social exclusion, activation, spatial differentiation, regional integration and care services. Recent publications can be found in The Routledge International Handbook to Welfare State Systems and the Journal of Health Care: Current Reviews.

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