‘Poverty’ media stunt backfires

Single mother who receives 15,000 kroner a month in benefits sets off debate about what it means to be poor in Denmark

The household budget of a single mother on welfare – in all its sundry details – raised questions this week about the local definition of poverty, and whether Denmark can in fact claim to have truly poor people.

MP Joachim Olsen (Liberal Alliance) has gone on record saying Denmark doesn’t have any truly poor people. To prove him wrong, MP Özlem Cekic (Socialistisk Folkeparti) offered to show him a living example.

However, the woman Cekic chose for her case study turned out to have a rather adequate income, according to many observers.

The 36-year-old Copenhagen resident ‘Carina’ has been on welfare since she was 16. She is single and has two children, one of whom lives at home. Carina claimed that psychiatric problems, particularly anxiety, keep her from working. She was hoping to qualify for permanent disability.

The budget Carina drew up for Olsen and Cekic showed that she receives 15,728 kroner after taxes each month in cash welfare benefits. After paying for rent, utilities, internet, a TV licence, dog food and vet bills, football expenses, medicine, private debts, and cigarettes, she has – by her own calculation – 5,000 kroner left over each month for food, clothing and housekeeping.

The left-leaning think tank Arbejderbevægelsens Erhvervsråd (AE) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) both report that poverty has increased dramatically in Denmark over the past decade. Yet even those organisations could not see how Carina could be considered “poor”.

According to the OECD she would have to get 3,000 kroner less per month to meet its criteria of poverty. AE agreed. “SheÂ’s not poor,” its chief analyst, Jonas Schytz Juul, told the tabloid Extra Bladet. 

Denmark does not have its own official definition of poverty, though AE is among the organizations that have argued that it should establish one as a first step towards identifying how many people in Denmark are living below the poverty line.

CekicÂ’s party, Socialistisk Folkeparti, has fought to raise the welfare limits.

Carina complained that she had sometimes had to ask family and friends for money to buy shoes for her children – an experience she called “humiliating”.

Olsen was not persuaded.

“We have to remember that the state only has money to give you because it takes it from other people who go to work,” he told Carina. 

Noting that she had enough money to buy food, plus spent 500 kroner per month on cigarettes, he added: “I think you can afford a decent life when I look at your budget, and I think that you live very nicely here.”

In response, Cekic called Olsen “ridiculous” and said it was “unbelievable” that he couldn’t agree that it was “degrading that a mother can’t afford to buy a pair of shoes for her son.”

Olsen countered that it was instead a matter of priorities. He was far from alone in his assessment. 

Konservative MP Tom Behnke told Berlingske that CekicÂ’s choice of Carina as her example of poverty in Denmark was an insult to people who were working hard and denying themselves luxuries to start businesses or educate themselves.

Cekic later admitted that using Carina as an example was a mistake. On her Facebook page on Tuesday, she wrote that Carina “is not among the poorest” in Denmark. She added that “there are many people who live in poverty in Denmark” – although she had failed to produce one of them for the media stunt she arranged for her political adversary, Olsen.

While Cekic and Olsen came no closer to agreeing on a definition of poverty the day they met Carina, they did manage to agree on one thing: that something was wrong with a system that permitted a person to go on welfare at 16, with no greater ambition than to get more money from the state each month and be granted early disability retirement.

Olsen argued that giving people like Carina 500 or 600 more kroner per month would never make them more independent. Cekic said the state had to “invest in the people” to educate them and bring them into the job market.

PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt also joined in on the debate.

“It is absolutely not one of the successes of the welfare state if a person has been on cash welfare benefits for  20 years – quite the opposite,” Thorning-Schmidt said at her weekly press conference on Tuesday. 

“I will say it loud and clear that I believe the same as my social and integration minister [Karen Hækkerup], who said that [Carina] is not poor. I don’t think so either,” the PM said Wednesday in parliament.”

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