A new number has been plastered over Copenhagen’s public transportation system, leading to a bizarre combination of shock and shoulder shrugs. No, it is not the numbers 7 and 11, though they are never far away. Seriously:
It is actually a much larger number, especially when taking into account the reverse role that the comma and period play in European numbers.
454,215 kroner, over 66,000 USD. That’s what a married couple with three children receive from the government every year without working. That would put you in the 60th percentile of American families for not doing a single thing but holding on to a Danish citizenship, although that is not entirely comparable because much of this 454,000 kroner is taxed at the same high rate that normal income in Denmark is taxed at. Other ads described how the same couple working two full time minimum wage jobs would make merely an additional 2,000 kroner per month, a yearly difference of 3,500 USD yearly for two people working full time or not at all.
In my small sample size, I’ve seen the three separate reactions. My host dad was mad, with the theme of “this is not like how it used to be” underlying his anger. Danes have been able to trust each other for so long, likely due in part to sharing such a common ancestry and being part of this small tribe. The idea that people might use and abuse welfare in such a way is nothing short of flabbergasting. There is a sense of betrayal. Stories of older generations turning down pensions and other such benefits because they simply didn’t need them still circulate regularly, with the melancholy understanding that for some reason it is no longer that way.
My host dad’s friend feels like these are clearly flawed policies, but are not tearing the country apart.
One of my teachers simply shrugged and thought, “Oh, that’s how much it is?” when she saw the ad. She doesn’t want people to actually live off of the benefits, but believes that the vast majority of Danes do not and will not. Like many other Danes, its hard for her to imagine where to possibly start in cutting back benefits.
The most surprising part of these reactions for me was that so little of the shock and emotion came from the amount of money. Rather, it came from the idea that it would dare be used to support a non-working family. It’s like I’m witnessing the birth of the welfare queen- it seems as though many had never fathomed one could exist before!
The political party that put out this ad is called “Venstre”, which literally translates to “Left”. This makes sense, because they are well left of center politically. But in Denmark, they sit far to the right of the most popular party, the party that has had political control for decades, the Social Democrats. The entire mainstream party system, in fact, happens on the left side of the political spectrum. This ad was clearly a challenge to the ruling Social Democrats, and a few days ago they responded with their own bus and train encompassing ad campaign:
“COME TO DENMARK AND YOU SHALL WORK” it proclaims boldly. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Prime Minister of Denmark, smiles just below these fateful words. Her opponents in Venstre have admitted to thinking this ad was an April Fool’s joke at first, and my host dad was quick to admonish the Social Democrats for bending to whatever needed to be said to win. The ad seems so ridiculous because the Social Democrats have created the current set of policies and now seem to be running away from them.
The issue is complicated. Immigration and racism are very much tied into it all. And at the end of the day, my host dad complains that in the last decade or so he can only get free healthcare in the EU, not the rest of Europe and Northern Africa. So, yes, some differences do still exist in the globalized world. We’ll wrap this one up with a funky modern sculpture.