Big Mother. The Holy Welfare State. The Nanny State. The nation’s social safety net is called many different things by many different people. Depending on who you ask, the Danish system of social assistance is either a shining example of nurturing to be followed by the rest of the world, or a bloated monstrosity that robs the populace of individualism, initiative and ambition by attempting to meet their every need.
Whatever one’s opinion, Big Mother is completely interwoven into the national psyche. Fully 75 percent of 1,000 Danes asked in a recent Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS)/Norstat poll said that they would turn to the state before their own families in times of need.
Henrik Gade Jensen, a senior fellow at CEPOS, found those numbers disturbing.
“It is remarkable that 75 percent of Danes would rather depend on the state than their own family,” Jensen said. “This clearly shows that the welfare state has become so extensive that we have forgotten our obligations to ourselves and our loved ones.”
Jensen said that the constitution’s intent was never that the state would take the place of families and individuals when it comes to caring for the nation’s citizens.
“The Danish constitution only intended that the most vulnerable with no other options had a safety net,” he said.
Jensen warned that current economic conditions make it impossible for governments, be they municipal or national, to provide universal services to everyone who needs them.
Recent moves by two Danish councils, however, seem to indicate that the populace is still expecting that the government is there to help them solve all of their problems, no matter how personal.
Kolding Council recently decided to become the first in the country to offer volunteer counselling to couples contemplating divorce. Scheduled to open just after Christmas – the peak season for divorces in Denmark – the council’s website and volunteer counselling service will be paid for by the town in an effort to reduce the number of divorces in Kolding.
“Everyone is affected by divorce,” Kolding’s mayor, Jørn Pedersen (Venstre), told public broadcaster DR.
While admitting that marriage counselling was not a traditional governmental function, Pedersen said that divorces eat up a lot of council resources, both emotionally and financially.
Pedersen said that he hopes the programme will help catch couples in the early stages of problems and give them a place to talk things through. Kolding also plans to offer marriage courses.
Klaus Markussen, a Venstre chairman in the north Zealand town of Hillerød, thinks that Kolding may be going a step too far.
“From my point of view, actions like this from local governments are borderline,” Markussen said. “No-one wants a nanny state that takes away personal responsibility. These programmes must be run in such a way that citizens realise that, in the long run, they are still responsible for their own lives.”
In the Jutland city of Aarhus, Big Mother has taken on residents’ individual habits.
In August, Aarhus became the first council in Denmark to completely ban smoking in city workplaces. A nationwide ban on smoking in schools and other educational institutions is on the way, but Aarhus decided to go one step further.
“The World Health Organisation singled out smoking as the most influential factor affecting mortality in Denmark,” said Astrid Kriegbaum Westphael, an Aarhus Council spokesperson. “Aarhusians who smoke daily cut as many as ten years from their lives and run the risk of living for many years with any number of long-term, severe diseases.”
Westphael said the enormous cost of council employees smoking – both in the form of medical treatment and lost worker hours through absenteeism and smoking breaks – are one reason why the council decided to take such an unprecedented step.
Employee unions criticised the council for making the move without first checking with workers and their representatives.
“The fight against increased absenteeism should be targeted at better working conditions – focusing on an individual’s behaviour is not the way forward,” Hans-Henrik Hansen, the president of HK Municipal Jutland, a municipal employees union, said in a statement. “Workplaces should be designed to promote public health, not the reverse.”
Carsten Toft-Hansen, a member of Venstre’s Hillerød board, said that city councils should not be in the business of legislating personal choice.
“Initiatives like this walk a thin line,” said Toft-Hansen. “Neither national nor local governments should force lifestyles or behaviours down our throats, but should instead encourage behaviours that benefit both the individual and the community.”
As if tackling smoking wasn’t enough, Aarhus has also been taking on the weighty problem of childhood obesity.
Since 2008, the council has been screening children as they start school. If the child is found to be overweight – having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30 – the school contacts the council and the child’s parents to work together to get the child’s weight down.
Aarhus’s 75 percent success rate puts it in first place among the 30 councils participating in the ‘Fit to Fight’ programme.
“The longer a child is overweight, the greater the risk there is of obesity in adulthood,” said Henriette Hansen, a healthcare consultant for children and adolescents in Aarhus.
Aarhus works with overweight kids and their parents for a year. The children play sports two hours a week, and the parents meet with the families of other overweight youngsters.
Although Markussen is suspicious of most governmental interventions into private lives, he thinks the idea of catching overweight kids when they are young is a good one.
“When it comes to overweight kids, all of the evidence suggests that early action is preferable in reducing the health issues related to obesity,” he said.
CEPOS’s Jensen said it was time to look at whether the welfare state has gone too far.
“There is a need for both political and public debate about whether the welfare state has become too prevalent,” said Jensen. “We must do away with the loser mentality that makes us slaves of the state rather than preparing the individual to take care of themselves and their loved ones.