Danish general election focuses on changing welfare state

Reforms and cutbacks have made welfare a key topic in today’s election

The kindergarten in Kolding, a town three hours west of Copenhagen, is everything you hope a Danish kindergarten will be.

In the garden, happy, blond children climb trees, pedal furiously on tricycles or run around after each other. Inside the bright, airy building, a wall- mounted iPad allows parents to check in or out their children on a dedicated system synchronised with their smartphones.

Opening hours are 6am to 5pm and the walls are decorated with captioned photos of the 13 full-time carers, four of whom are men. All of this for a subsidised monthly fee of DK1,800 (€248), with additional discounts for siblings.

In her office, kindergarten director Hanne Fallesen appears calm, though she is never complacent, particularly not during an election campaign.

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"Things are a lot better than they were when I started in 1994 but there is always room for improvement," she says. "Here in Denmark, how we treat our children in these crucial early years is a big political issue."

The government spends DK500 million (€67 million) on childcare annually and has promised that will rise to €167 million annually by 2019 should it be re-elected today.

It was a significant gesture after a tough few years for Denmark, and a shot in the arm for a welfare system considered one of the best in the world.

Birth rate

The debate over how much welfare state Danes think they can afford is a major issue here because, in spite of widespread affordable childcare, Denmark has a declining birthrate.

The welfare debate took on a new urgency when, after the global financial and economic crisis, the Danish economy began to shrink along with the birth rate. Social Democrat finance minister Bjarne Corydon said his budget numbers, in particular welfare, no longer added up after an economic slump familiar to Irish ears.

After a property bubble burst in 2008, house prices fell a fifth in value and Danes were left with the highest household debt in the world. Wages had risen more than 30 per cent in the dozen years to 2012 – three times more than its trade competitors – and remained high even as the economy in general, and private consumption in particular, began to shrink.

Mr Corydon concluded in 2012 that, though top-earning Danes paid 54 per cent tax, they worked too little for the welfare state they afforded themselves: 8 per cent less than in 2000 and 24 per cent less than the average in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And, though outside the euro, the Social Democrat finance minister prescribed a course of spending cuts similar to those doled out of late to the euro zone’s periphery.

Welfare was a particular target after a government study claiming that 250,000 Danes had no economic incentive to work. Case studies popped in the media on cue, like “lazy” Robert Nielsen, on welfare since 2001 with no interest in taking demeaning work that didn’t inspire him.

Or a 36-year-old single woman dubbed “Carina” who had been on welfare for 20 years and was content with her life on the equivalent of more than €2,000 a month.

For the 2.6 million Danes in work who pay taxes and welfare contributions, extreme cases like these helped to build the government’s case for cutting or abolishing many long-held cradle-to-grave entitlements.

Freeze spending

Ahead of today’s general election, the centre-right opposition have vowed to hold this course and freeze budget spending because they believe more budget consolidation is necessary. The Social Democrat-led centre-left camp, hoping for re-election, promise to use the fruits of recovery to fund new, targeted welfare spending.

But some Danes worry that the recent economic and welfare reforms have seen something lost. The strong welfare state is no longer something to be proud of, they worry, but something to defend from potential abuse lurking around every corner.

“The tone has become much harder in how we talk about the vulnerable in our society,” said Emma Fleming, a 38-year-old midwife from Copenhagen. “When people talk now about people without work there’s often an assumption that they’re out of work because they’re lazy. Our belief in other people has dropped.”