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A New Chance for Everyone? Someone? Anyone?


“…Ordinary Danes are subjected to various forms of social control. For instance we go to work because we wonder what our family and neighbours might say and because we want to be a good example to our children. But these inhibitions don’t apply to foreigners in the same way. They live in a sub-culture outside the Danish tribe. That is why they rapidly acquire the possibilities to receive money (welfare), without doing anything in return.” 

- Bertel Haarder, former Minister of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs 

Denmark has long held a reputation as one of the most redistributive and generous welfare states in the world. By maintaining a high rate of labor market participation among men as well as women and promoting a well-educated workforce, the Danish society has been financing its costly welfare policies for decades. However recent policies from the Danish Government have challenged the limits of the solidarity within the Danish welfare system.

In the late sixties the need for for cheap, unskilled labor led Denmark to invite thousand of men from such countries as Pakistan, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Morocco to perform jobs that the Danes would not do themselves. When the oil crisis hit Denmark and the rest of Western Europe a few years later, the newcomers were the first to be laid off. Nonetheless, the majority of these people chose to remain in Denmark, despite the fact that a significant proportion remained unemployed. Furthermore they brought their wives and children with them through their right of family reunification. Thus, in just a few years, Denmark has morphed from an almost uniquely homogenous nation state into a country dealing for the first time with the challenges of incorporating groups of people with different cultural backgrounds into society—challenges that intensified throughout the 80’s and 90’s by increasing number of asylum seekers, particularly from conflicts in the Middle East. 

From the onset of the oil crisis and the end of full employment to today, these groups, which are labeled “immigrants and their descendants from non-Western countries” (SOPEMI, 2004) by the Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integrations Affairs, have faced many obstacles to entering into the Danish labor market. The term “immigrants and their descendants from non-Western countries” itself is very telling of the Danish attitude to otherness as it includes people with a Danish citizenship, even descendants of Danish citizens. Essentially, for members of this group, whom the media refer to as “New Danes,” there is no way to escape the classification of descendant- no way to escape being labeled as outside the mainstream of Danish society.

In recent years, however, the New Danes permanent status as others is being exacerbated by their increasing withdrawal from the labor market. In 2004, almost half of this group was not active in the labor market, as compared to 20 percent of the Danes (Alien Yearbook 2004). Even within the labor market the New Danes remain marginalized: as the 16 percent unemployment rate for them is almost three times the national average of 6.1 percent (Danmarks Statistik, 2005). Furthermore the aggregate level of education is lower among New Danes, compared to the Old Danes. The pressures of globalization, resulting in outsourcing and a shift in demand from low skilled to highly educated labor, have further marginalized the New Danes. The most sobering development for the New Danes, however, is the Government’s claim that 2nd and 3rd generation non-Western descendants still trail their Old Dane counterparts when it comes to levels of education and employment. These numbers are so important because they explain why New Danes, as one civil servant at the Integration Ministry informed us, receive 40 percent of Danish welfare expenditures despite making up only 5 percent of the population (Mark Kjeldgaard, lecture). In effect, the New Dane’s disproportionate share of welfare allotments has combined with demographic trends to project large increases in their percentage of the population to convince many ethnic Danes of the powerful notion that these new groups will stretch the welfare state to the breaking point.

These developments over the past 10 years have produced an increasingly heated debate in Denmark on the issues of immigration and multiculturalism. Not only has the right-wing Danish People’s Party become the third largest party in Denmark and the most influential ally of the Government, but it is also to a large extent setting the agenda in the public debate on the New Danes (a term they reject as politically correct). This manifestation of xenophobia has resulted in a growing feeling of being subjected to racism and discrimination among the minority population in Denmark (Rushy Rashid, lecture).

The combination of increased pressure on the welfare state on the one hand and the increased xenophobia on the other has led to a number of suggestions to resolve these problems. The British journalist David Goodhart has attempted to do this by raising the question whether there is a trade off between  solidarity he and ethnic diversity in his essay: Discomfort of Strangers (Goodhart, 2004). Goodhart argues that it is impossible for a historically homogenous welfare state like Denmark to maintain its high levels of solidarity (welfare) while at the same time accepting ethnic diversity. Conversely, Goodhart adds that in countries like the US it is possible to maintain a multiethnic diversity, due to the low welfare benefits. In essence, he claims that welfare states are threatened by a clash between diversity and solidarity, and as the homogenous nation state is a thing of the past, even liberals (he sees himself as a liberal) will have to agree to cut back on welfare in order to avoid increased racism. In many ways, developments within Denmark have followed Goodhart’s welfare model, as the preponderance of New Danes on welfare has led to a proposed cutback in the formerly universal system. By examining the context, formulation, and criticism of this proposed change in welfare policy, it is possible to see the extent to which Goodhart’s thesis describes the situation in Denmark, where New Danes are seen as a threat not only to the Danish Culture but as well to the solidarity within the welfare state. 

In the November 2001 parliamentary elections a coalition of the Liberal and Conservative Parties supported by the Danish People’s Party defeated and replaced the Social Democratic/Social Liberal Government. The new Government had based their campaign on imposing stricter immigration and asylum laws as well as instituting a “something for something” welfare policy. Since they have taken office, the new Government has acted on these promises and is now negotiating a bill setting stricter demands on welfare recipients. The Government has called this new initiative “A New Chance for Everyone.” 

The overarching goal of the changes is to have New Danes participate in the labor market at the same rate as Danes, receive the same education levels as Danes, and receive a percentage of welfare expenditures in line with their population percentage. To achieve these ends, the Government has announced two underlying principles that will dictate the course of their initiative. These are two principles: “no one should remain as clients living by public funds” and on the other that “it should always pay to work; a low cash benefit is an incentive to work” (Integration Ministry, March 2005). In other words, the goal of the policy is to encourage welfare recipients to travel the road to self-sufficiency, but the means with which this journey is encouraged is the economic stick. As the Government’s summary to its new plan states, “a job is the key to successful integration” (Integration Ministry, March 2005). 

Three key measures proposed by the integration plan tell us where the government is going with these new policies. The first measure deals with 15-17 year olds many of whom stop their education after finishing their compulsory 9 years at around fifteen. Under this policy, if they did not “start a qualifying course or have a job with an educational perspective”, their families would lose their family assistance, or “child check,” (Integration Ministry, May 2005). Similarly, the second measure targets 18-25 year olds receiving cash assistance, who must commence a relevant job-qualifying course or lose their cash assistance. Thus both of these policies use the economic stick of lost cash assistance in an attempt to encourage people to pursue job training. The third measure is slightly different as it incorporates the idea that it should always pay to work. Under the current system, for married couples where both members are on cash assistance, it is more profitable for both of them to stay on welfare than if one of them decides to work because the other would lose their benefit. The new policy corrects this disincentive from occurring by reducing a spouse’s benefit if that spouse has not had ordinary paid work for 300 hours in the preceding two-year period” (Integration Ministry, May 2005). 

In essence, all three policies place qualifications on receiving benefits that formerly in Denmark were available to all on the basis of need. Although the initiative weakens welfare along the lines Goodhart proposed, one must first examine the political context that produced such an initiative and its reception by the Danes before determining the extent to which Goodhart’s solidarity-liberalism trade-off applies in this case.

It should come as no surprise that the announcement of this “new chance for everyone” has been met with tacit approval by much of the Danish media and population. The image of cunning immigrants capitalizing on loopholes in the welfare laws to subsidize their idleness is perhaps the most powerful force in Danish politics. Even the Social Democrats have succumbed to this logic, pledging their support for this initiative, which summarily rejects the notion of welfare clients- “something for nothing.” 

Essentially the Government sees the huge percentages of non-Western residents who are out of the labor force (53 percent) and have gained no professional qualifications in Denmark (90 percent) as both major obstacles to integration and as major threats to the welfare state (Integration Ministry, May 2005). There is some truth to their claims; it is completely unsustainable for a state to have a clearly identifiable and growing 5 percent of its population receiving 40 percent of its welfare expenditures. The precariousness of the situation is furthered by the obvious differences between the new immigrants and the ethnically and culturally homogenous Danes, as these differences add a racial and religious dimension to the resentment that can arise in a welfare state if the majority feels people are getting unqualified benefits. As Goodhart suggests such demographic and fiscal developments pose a major threat to the solidarity at the heart of universal, albeit formerly homogenous welfare states. 

Therefore, the goals behind the welfare and integration policies of the Government seem justified, if not required by population trends, unemployment statistics, and the sentiments of the majority. Simply put, the Government wants to integrate residents with non-Western backgrounds, which merely means having their statistics match those of the Danes in labor participation, educational achievement, and welfare assistance. The thinking is that by placing requirements on receiving benefits and seeking always to make work pay more than welfare payments, the Government can dampen the perception that people, especially those of non-Danish origin, are taking advantage of the system- “something for something.”

Even the Social Liberals, the one major Party to oppose the new initiative, accept the Government’s integration goals of greater labor participation and self-sufficiency for immigrants. Where disagreement emerges, however, is over the means of pursuing these goals. The Social Liberals main charge is that relying solely on economic threats to spur integration will push more people out of the system entirely. In essence, as Morten Østergaard, a Social Liberal MP and the Party’s spokesman on integration told us in an interview, the Party not only doubts the efficacy of using economic threats to increase the education levels and employment rates of non-Western residents but sees this trend as a fundamental breach in the underlying concept of the Danish welfare state. As Østergaard phrased it: “the welfare state was designed to lift people up, and the safety net it created was largely responsible for Denmark overcoming its lack of natural resources to become one of the world’s strongest economies.” But Østergaard sees the current policies as forcing people to “climb up into the safety net” by setting requirements for receiving assistance that these people have been unable to meet for years. 

Despite their distaste for this way of weakening Denmark’s formerly universal welfare system, the Social Liberals still feel compelled to accept publicly the logic of “something for something” ideology to some degree. Even though the Party did not support the initiative when it was announced in mid-June, it will most likely be another story when the policy is actually formulated when the Parliament returns from recess in October. Many voters blame the former Government for doing nothing concerning integration, causing the problems that the country faces today. Much of the reasoning for the Social Liberals opposition to the current plan seems to stem from a procedural more than conceptual disagreement. As Østergaard said, the Social Liberals did not want to sign a “blank check” by agreeing to the initiative before the details of the plan have been formally laid out. For certain the Social Liberals will seek to take part in negotiating these details in Parliament. 

Before considering broader objections to the proposed policies, one must examine the merits of these more specific grievances of the Social Liberals to the plan. In the case of the new, aforementioned couple’s plan, Østergaard told us that his Party was not opposed to making demands on these welfare recipients, but it preferred different demands from those of the Government. Instead of requiring one of the spouses to have worked 300 hours in the past two years in order for both of them to get their full cash benefit, the Social Liberals propose that one of them should have to spend 1200 hours in either work, education, or job training. This idea makes a large amount of sense, as individuals that do not have the skills to be employed should not have their welfare cut because they cannot find a job. Furthermore, the Social Liberals proposed another caveat to this initiative that a couple’s benefits could be lowered only if one of the spouses has refused a job offer. This proposal too makes sense as it protects those who are looking for a job but cannot find one. But a problem arises for the Social Liberals regarding the other two aspects of the initiative. Both the 15-17 policy and the 18-25 policy place demands on welfare recipients that are very similar to what the Social Liberals would prefer for couples, yet the Party still does not support these proposals. In short, they do not think brandishing the economic stick is enough to get a person motivated to pursue an education or job training. Thus, despite a public claim to desire different demands from the Government, but demands nonetheless, in reality, the party rejects the fundamental logic of “something for something.” It is telling, however, that the political power of “something for something” is so strong that even a Party that rejects its fundamental premise feels compelled to begrudgingly accept it in public.

Undoubtedly the Social Liberals are correct in asserting that a more holistic solution than “something for something” is needed for integrating non-Western residents into the labor market. Certainly these policies will have little effect on the unemployment rates and educational achievement of Danish residents with non-Western origins. As Østergaard told us: “these proposals are just Band-Aids; they think they can reverse the situation by making a small change there or a slight turn there. But integration is a permanent problem that requires a more general solution. We will always have to integrate, but we have to pave a path for them.” First of all, simply forcing people into the labor market or some sort of job training is not enough to achieve integration when those people lack the skills or motivation to achieve true self-sufficiency. The problems do not begin when a child reaches the age of 15; in fact, by then it is too late. Essentially the problem is in the pipeline, as over half of the children with non-Western backgrounds in Denmark do not score well enough to proceed with their education (Henrik Kyvgaard, interview). Furthermore, increasing “ghettoization” has led to schools where almost the entire student body is non-Western in origin, resulting in lower teacher quality and a deepening of the distinct advantage ethnic Danes receive from the education level of their parents. To have any hope for improving the labor participation of non-Western children, real investments must be made to counter the huge dropout rates and poor performance in lower secondary schools by non-Western students. In essence, the playing field between young ethnic Danes and non-Western children must be leveled.

We have arrived at the crux of the integration problem, and for that matter Goodhart’s tradeoff: the total lack of political will among the majority population to make any sacrifice to attack the real roots of the integration problem. For instance, employer discrimination against Muslim residents is widely practiced across Denmark. In the Danish media, this discrimination is often expressed through the example of a well-qualified Muslim engineer submitting two applications to a job, one with his name and one with that of a Danish friend, both with his qualifications. Invariably, the Danish applicant gets the job after the interviews, despite not having any knowledge of engineering. To force non-Western residents into a discriminatory labor market at the risk of losing their benefits without addressing employer discrimination is absurd. The common response to such criticism is that employer discrimination is difficult to prove, so instead the solution has been to do nothing about it. If the prospect of affirmative action either in universities or the private sector is raised as a possible solution, even a Social Liberal will say, “we are a little sensitive about that” and “we will rather do without it.” The stated reason for this reluctance is fear of a “backwash of sentiment” among ethnic Danes, a feeling that minorities are getting an unfair advantage. And it is impossible to dismiss this fear. After all, the current Government was elected with the stated purpose of being tough on “immigrants,” and any move towards giving them an advantage at the expense of the ethnic Danes is highly risky. The larger point remains, however, that without systematic measures to improve non-Western primary education and job discrimination real integration will remain a pipe dream. 

But perhaps these initiatives address something far different than merely the percentage of New Danes in the labor force. Instead the welfare reforms seem aimed at curbing Old Dane resentment, namely, the perception that the multiplying New Danes are threatening the solvency of the welfare state through their laziness. This interpretation falls in line with Goodhart’s thesis that increasing diversity weakens the solidarity on which a universal welfare state rests. As Henrik Kyvsgaard, a Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Integration told us, “We have to reform our welfare state in order to preserve it” (Henrik Kyvsgaard, interview). In other words, by weakening the welfare state through these requirements, the Government is trying to find a sustainable system, a system that eliminates the possibility of immigrants receiving “something for nothing.” Indeed it seems that the Government’s reasoning mirrors that of Goodhart in that only through a weakening of the universal welfare state can racial tolerance be achieved.





- SOPEMI Report to OECD: Trends in internatioal migration to Denmark (November 2004).

- Ministry for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration: Yearbook on Aliens in Denmark 2004 (Årbog om udlændinge i Danmark 2004).

- Ministry for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration: Integration of Refugees and Immigrants – The case of Denmark. (March 2005).

- Ministry for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration: Summary: A new chance for everyone – the Government’s integration plan. (May 2005).


- Goodhart, David: The Discomfort of Strangers (Guardian 2004)


- Henrik Kyvsgaard, Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Integration Department of the Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integrations Affairs, June 27th.

- Morten Østergaard, Member of Parliament and Spokesman on Integration for The Social Liberal Party, June 29th.


- Rushy Rashid, Author/Journalist, June 14th. 

- Mark Kjeldgaard, Advisor to the Minister of Refugee, Immigration and Integrations Affairs, June 17th.

Internet ressorces:

Danmarks Statistik: http://www.statistikbanken.dk


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