Government opens debate over future of welfare state

The welfare state will become unaffordable unless some cuts are made, the social affairs minister says

In twenty years time, Denmark may not be able to afford all the social services currently offered. That's the position of the current government, which has opened a debate about which services ought to be prioritized and which could be cut.

Last Friday, the government released a document outlining the broad challenges faced by the welfare state over the coming years and posing questions about which direction the Danish welfare state should go.

With welfare reform not due for consideration in parliament until the autumn, the social affairs minister, Karen Hækkerup, told Berlingske newspaper that it was important to start the debate as early as possible about which services could be axed.

“If we want to improve some things, then we will have to cut others,” Hækkerup said. “We cannot afford to keep on giving all the tax-financed social services we currently offer. If we want to preserve the welfare state, it doesn’t help to believe that it can continue growing unhindered.”

The government has not made any concrete proposals of where cuts should be made, though Hækkerup did identify some services for the elderly for the chopping block, as well as the free places at daycare given to handicapped children.

“I think it’s reasonable that parents with handicapped children are offered places at day care centres on the same footing as everyone else," she said. "And if during your life you have earned good money and have been able to afford a cleaning lady, should the council start paying for you simply because you are old?”

One party unlikely to support means-tested services for the elderly is Dansk Folkeparti, whose leader Pia Kjærsgaard responded angrily in Berlingske to Hækkerup’s suggestion.

“It’s totally misguided to make people insecure like this,” Kjærsgaard said. “It has nothing to do with making savings. It’s paving the way for fundamental changes to the welfare system where it no longer becomes about what sort of help people need, but what people can afford to pay.”

Kjærsgaard added that some basic services ought to remain universal.

“It’s as though the government is targeting areas which would cause the most pain," she said. "They are targeting the weak, the handicapped and the aged. But where is the Social Demokraternes and Socialistiske Folkeparti’s empathy? Where are their feelings for those who have hard lives when they also bring up cutting the top tax bracket in a tax reform.”

Kjærsgaard followed up her criticisms in a press release today, arguing that the government has been too soft on groups who take the most (immigrants) while being too hard on those who have already paid in to the welfare system (the elderly).

Her criticism focused on the government’s abolition of certain low-value cash welfare benefits that were introduced by the former government to incentivise entering the workplace but were ultimately criticised for keeping recipients in cycles of poverty.

According to Kjærsgaard, abolishing them meant the government now faces a 804 million kroner bill through increased welfare payments to recipients who would now rather receive a check from the state than work.

Ældre Sagen, a lobby group representing the elderly, also took exception to Hækkerup’s suggestion at cutting elderly services.

“If you put an income limit on who is rich and who is poor in regard to home help, I fear that the income barrier will continue to fall otherwise there would be no benefit,” Bjarne Astrup, the head of head of Ældre Sagen, told Ritzau. “The reason people receive home help in this country is not because they have reached a certain age or are rich or poor. It is because they are weak. It would be the same as making rich people pay for their operations.”

Most political parties have expressed cautious optimism at streamlining the welfare state so that it targets better those who most need it, including the Konservative party.

“Everyone cannot expect to get as much back from the state as they pay in, otherwise there would be nothing to redistribute to the weakest,” Konservative leader Lars Barfoed told Berlingske, adding that he supported examining age-conditional services for cuts.