Explore More »

The Danish Illusion: The Gap Between Principle and Practice in the Danish Welfare System

Growing social problems may be on the horizon for the “world’s happiest country”.  Although Denmark’s welfare model seems on paper to provide a sufficient safety net for its citizens, in practice, conditions today threaten to reveal the celebrated welfare state as having effectively been a mere illusion. The official website for Denmark describes its national welfare model as a system which aspires to make this the sort of country described by writer N.F.S. Grundtvig: a country in which “few have too much and fewer too little.” Denmark continues to serve as an admirable model of an effective welfare state; however, its welfare system is undergoing substantial and fundamental changes that have yet to be adequately addressed.  Although Danish society claims to uphold the basic principles of a welfare state – solidarity among citizens and provisions for the needy – in practice, public discourse and government policies have been creating a more libertarian, individualistic model that strays from its founding principles. Until the Danish people stop moralizing about solidarity and acknowledge the changing nature of their welfare system, Denmark’s poor and excluded will grow in number to fill this dangerously widening gap between perception and practice.  

Social Solidarity? Straying from the ideals of the welfare state

The Danish welfare system is ostensibly grounded in the principle of solidarity among citizens. Traditionally, its underlying philosophy has been the socialistic ideal that the state has the responsibility to secure for everyone “the necessary material framework for living a reasonable life,” in the words of Denmark’s official website.  In recent years, by the Danish people’s own admission, the country’s model has fallen short of this goal.  A 2008 article in Jyllandsposten reported that a poll conducted by Ugebrevet A4 shows 59% of those polled to believe that the economic gap between rich and poor needs to be reduced. In the words of Per Shulz Jørgensen, leader of the Alternative Welfare Commission: “the welfare society is not living up to its own principles—inequality has increased, poverty has returned.”  Poverty in Denmark has increased, and threatens to continue rising in the coming years if current trends remain unchanged.  As Karin Larsen, department leader at Kofoed’s School, told us in reference to the failures of the current welfare system: “you’d have to be blind and deaf in Denmark if you don’t know about it.”   Indeed, there seems to be a common consensus that homelessness and poverty are growing problems, relative to other years under the Danish welfare state. 
There are several indications that poverty in Denmark is rising.  According to a 2009 article published by the online newspaper Avisen.dk, from 2001 to 2006 the number of poor increased by 55,000. Why is poverty rising in a country with a welfare system that purports to ensure that “all citizens have equal rights to social security”?  A study of the discourse and practices surrounding that system suggests that Danish society has effectively abandoned—in practice if not yet in mind—the ideals underlying the original conception for the Danish Model. Although people may insist that solidarity is still the main driving principle behind the welfare system in Denmark, the reality that confronts the country today suggests otherwise. Current welfare policies amount to a substantively new type of system, which operates on different principles than Danish society seems ready to admit.  Dr. Preben Brandt, founder and director of Project Outside and author of the recent book, The City and Social Inequality, characterizes the problem as “a schism between what you would like to show and what you really are.”  “People still feel they want more solidarity in the system but they are acting differently,” says Brandt. This gap between principle and practice threatens to systematically neglect a growing population of needy and excluded persons in Denmark.

On paper but not in practice

Many in Denmark would reject the contention that the founding ideals of the Danish welfare state have been betrayed.   At first glance, the persistence of such principles seems to be corroborated by media stories and daily conversations about the shortfalls of the current system.  In these discussions people do appear to cling to an ideal of solidarity and the state’s responsibility to provide for the welfare of Danish citizens.  Nevertheless, the reality amounts to an effective abandonment of these principles. Such moralizing about the problems of the welfare state fails to translate into practical change on the ground; criticisms find little foothold in current policies, since on the surface these policies supposedly remain in line with founding principles.  
Therein lies the problem: on paper, current welfare policies live up to the principle of providing for the social welfare of all; however, in practice, the policies do not amount to a substantive welfare system.  Such a failure is evident in the March 2009 report on the need for an equal opportunity policy in Copenhagen, developed by the Danish Institute of Human Rights in collaboration with the Municipality of Copenhagen.  The report concludes that despite the municipality’s efforts to promote equality, differences in citizens’ access to services precludes, de facto, true equality of opportunity, despite what appears in the text of the official policy document.  This finding is only a small-scale snapshot of the larger issue plaguing the Danish welfare system: policies that purport on paper to fulfill the social imperatives mentioned earlier, but do not in fact achieve such goals. 

A problem of framing

Another explanation for the inconsistency between the discomforting realities of the Danish welfare system and its supposed principles may be found in the manner in which public discourse frames the discussion. Although people in Denmark may not have explicitly abandoned these founding principles, their discussions on the topic betray an implicit reformulation of these principles.  As Brandt stated, “most people don’t see the change of what is meant by ‘welfare community,’ but it is a totally new kind of welfare community which we are creating.” This subtle shift in values effectively changes the justification for a welfare system, without people recognizing the substantive contradiction between these new principles and the older ones.  The founding mantra of the Danish welfare system was essentially, “contribute what you can and get what you need.”  Today, the system operates more in accordance with the idea that you should “contribute what you can and get in proportion to your contribution.” In other words, it has effectively changed from a system rooted in solidarity to one rooted in individualism.  
In his 2001 article “The Social Construction of an Imperative: Why Welfare Reform Happened in Denmark and the Netherlands but Not in Germany”, political scientist Robert Henry Cox suggests how such a shift in mindset took hold of Danish society almost unnoticed.  In 1993, the government-established Social Commission justified limits on unemployment benefits and a higher qualifying retirement age by pointing to articles in the Constitution providing for a reciprocal obligation between state and citizen.  According to this obligation, the state will provide public support, but the citizen is obliged to work if able to do so.  As Cox notes, “By framing the issue in this way, the Social Commission tried to make the proposal appear less radical than it was perceived to be by its critics.” Although the retrenchment of welfare provisions and reframing of underlying values has amounted to a fundamental change in the nature of the welfare system, many do not recognize it as such, due to the fact that politicians and the media have framed the discourse in such a way as to present the new language as consistent with Danish values.  
This emphasis on reciprocal obligations has evidently become ingrained in the discourse on welfare in Danish society.  Although reciprocity has arguably always undergirded the Danish Model, the obligation for people to work seems to have begun to take priority over society’s obligation to provide for the needy.  One can see evidence for this change in discussions about welfare policies such as the “Start-Help” program, under which people who have not been living in Denmark for the past ten years (read: immigrants) will receive lower social benefits.   Although this policy effectively targets immigrants and discourages them from coming to Denmark, it is framed not as a policy for limiting immigration, but rather a policy for inspiring people to find jobs.  As such, published research on the Start-Help policy selectively reports that more people find jobs when they are given the lower Start-Help benefit than when given the normal level of benefits.   What remains unreported, lurking in the fine print of those articles, is the percentage of people who remain dependent on benefits and must live on lower-than-average benefit allowances. The benefits under the normal system have been calculated to enable recipients to live “a reasonable life”; those people relegated to the Start-Help benefit receive substantially less―3,000 DKK/month lower for an individual without children. By strategically focusing on the statistical success of the policy, this kind of analysis overshadows—even ignores—the thousands of people who are effectively rejected by Danish society and must struggle to get by on substantially lower benefits.  

“People don’t want to look poverty in the eyes”: Assigning responsibility

The disconnect between notional welfare and substantive welfare, compounded by the change in discourse described above, serves to create a fundamentally new type of welfare system in Denmark.   This, in turn, gives rise to yet another kind of disconnect: people still believe that the system operates in accordance with its founding values of solidarity and universal welfare, and thus continue to leave all responsibility to the state when it comes to providing for the needy.  Since people are not aware of these systemic changes, they fail to recognize that caring for the needy no longer fall under the sole purview of the state.  Thus, people speak about the importance of solidarity and welfare while simultaneously enrolling in private health insurance and private pension plans, not realizing that those private plans further undercut an already faltering public welfare system. 
For example, consider the effect of private pensions. Today, Denmark has a growing population of poor elderly people—a development that would be unthinkable according to the purported values of the Danish welfare system.  As more and more people obtain private insurance for old-age pensions, those who depend solely on welfare pensions increasingly suffer.   The first group often fails to recognize that not everyone has a private pension, and overlook the severe consequences of lower taxes for those public pension benefits.  One consequence of society’s recent embracing of the individualistic idea that those who contribute more should also receive more, is that those most in need of public benefits are increasingly snubbed by the system.  Although the state still provides a common pension for everyone, these benefits have not kept pace with the increase in prices.  As a result, some elderly people today receive old-age pensions without any additional pension from private plans, yet are prevented by law from seeking necessary extra income if they wish to continue receiving any sort of public pension.  Society tacitly accepts this state of affairs because of the increasing number of people who have private pensions and thus do not feel the impact of the failing welfare system.

Looking it in the eye: Realigning principles with practice

All of these explanations for the gap between principles and practice in the Danish welfare system today point to the same fundamental issue: what was once a universal welfare system based on solidarity is, effectively, becoming an individualistic, libertarian one. Yet, society seems to have refused to recognize this shift.  Until people can acknowledge the ideological transformation that has occurred, and the shortcomings of the current system, they will be unable to address the true underlying problems.  Denmark has countless reasons to rightfully claim its place as one of the most progressive, successful nations in the world; however, it seems that these successes have produced a sort of “happiest nation complacency” that threatens to open the country to stagnation and less admirable conditions. Until prevailing social mores and public discourse openly acknowledge the new state of the “welfare state”, there is the threat that an increasing number of poor and marginalized people in Denmark will be neglected. 


Andersen , Torben M.  Professor, lic.oecon., PhD and head of the Welfare Commission 2003-2005. Phone Interview. June 30, 2009.
Brandt, Preben. Psychiatrist and founder of Projekt Udenfor. Personal Interview. Copenhagen June 30, 2009.
Cox, Robert Henry. “The Social Construction of an Imperative: Why Welfare Reform Happened in Denmark and the Netherlands but Not in Germany” World Politics 53:3 (Apr 2001): 463-498.  JSTOR. 28 Jun 2009. <http://jstor.org>
Hansen, Finn Kenneth and Hansen, Henning and Hussain, M. Azhar. “Børnefamilierne hårdest ramt af nedsatte ydelser” Politiken, April 8 2009. <http://politiken.dk/debat/analyse/article686907.ece>
Jørgensen, Per Schultz. Professor and former head of the Children's Council and leader of the alternative Welfare commission. E-mail interview. June 30, 2009.
Larsen, Karin. Department leader of Kofoeds School. Personal Interview. Copenhagen June 30, 2009.
Pihl-Andersen, Axel.  Danskere ønsker mindre ulighed.  Jyllandsposten, September 21 2008. <http://jp.dk/indland/article1444952.ece>
Poulsen, Stinne Kaasgaard.   Flere fattige i Danmark.  Avisen.dk, March17, 2009. <http://avisen.dk/flere-fattige-i-danmark_105133.aspx>  
Ritzau“DA: Starthjælp hjælper indvandrere i job” Politiken, March 16 2007. <http://politiken.dk/erhverv/article265205.ece> 
“The Danish Model.”  Denmark. <http://www.denmark.dk/en/menu/About-Denmark/Denmark-In-Brief/Denmark-An-Overview/TheDanishModel/>
Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2009


Related Media

How is Integration Possible in Denmark?
by Maja Buskbjerg, Najhee Jackson, Denmark 2009
Browse all content