Earlier this week, Huffington Post ran a blog post entitled, “What Can We Learn From Denmark?” Most of the information in the article is attributed to the horse’s mouth, Danish Ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen, as regurgitated by Bernie Sanders, an Independent Senator from Vermont.
I’ve been following the comments on this article, and discussions in blogs and various social media, and before everyone packs their bags and jumps a plane to Kastrup, I'd like to share my firsthand perspective as an expat living in Denmark.
Let me preface this post by saying that my perspective on the Danish system is of course going to be different from that of most Danes. This post isn't meant to critique the Danish system, it's meant to offer the perspective of an American who's actually living in this so-called utopia.
I don't come from a charmed upper middle class background. My parents were married at 17, had me at 18, had my sister 3 years later, and were divorced 4 years after that. During that time, my mother became an alcoholic, who prioritized vodka over groceries. She left my sister and me alone for days at a time. We sent ourselves to school, answered the door to bill collectors, had our heat and power shut off, and were evicted. Long story short, we ended up with Child Protective Services and were ultimately placed with different sets of grandparents, neither of whom were enthusiastic about the situation.
I’ve been doing volunteer work since I was 12 years old, and that work led to my first paid job at 16. I attended college on a full academic scholarship. I graduated Magna Cum Laude in 8 semesters, and I worked multiple jobs throughout. After graduation, I took a low paying internship and lived in a one room apartment in order to get the work experience most students were fortunate enough to have during their college years.
By all accounts, I should be in love with the Danish system. As a child and young adult, I was exactly the type of person it's designed to protect and nurture. I moved here expecting to fall in love with the Danish way and to forever swear off America's heartless capitalistic ways. Instead, I learned the truth of the saying among expats that, "you never know how patriotic you are, until you move abroad."
I was raised in a capitalist society. I'm a capitalist, a liberal capitalist, but a capitalist just the same. I built my career slowly. I saved for emergencies, a house, and my retirement. I was raised to believe that hard work was the way to success and that I was in charge of my future. Considering my beginnings, I've accomplished quite a bit, and while I believe that some of it was because of chance, luck, karma, or whatever you want to call it, a lot of it was due to careful decision making and hard work.
Before I moved to Denmark, I was saving at least 30% of my net pay, I was contributing the maximum to my 401k and IRA, and I was debt free except for a small mortgage that would've been paid off within the year.
Now, three years later, in Denmark, I have "free" healthcare, no 401k, and a higher gross salary, yet I bring home less per month than I did in the US. I have a small pension here, but I'll only see a percentage of it because I will not retire in Denmark.
So, how does Senator Sanders' panacea stack up to my reality? Let's see...
"Health care in Denmark is universal, free of charge and high quality."
That statement is partly true. For the unemployed, healthcare is in fact free of charge. However, those who work pay 8% of their salary for healthcare. Quality is variable from district to district. I just looked for the soonest available non-emergency appointment with my doctor, it's June 25th, and there's only 1 time available. It is possible to get in earlier if it's an "emergency" but that's hit or miss. A few months ago, I developed several big floaters in my eye, when it didn't improve over several weeks, and the soonest available appointment was 5 weeks away, I emailed my doctor, requesting an emergency appointment. I told her I'd had the floaters for several weeks, and that I was concerned it could be a Lasik complication, she replied asking me if I sure it wasn't "just dirt" in my eye.
Danish healthcare does not include vision or dental coverage. Dental work especially is so expensive that people in need of extensive treatment sometimes travel to other countries, financing their trip plus the cost of treatment for about the same cost as the treatment alone in Denmark. A lot of people take out supplemental insurance for vision and dental, and so they can "jump the line" and see a specialist at a private hospital if the need arises. Without this insurance, the wait to see a specialist can be very long.
The adequacy of Denmark's preventive cancer screening is questionable. Routine mammograms, for example, don't start until age 50; high risk women often turn to private hospitals if they insist on earlier screening. Coincidentally (or not), Denmark has the highest breast cancer mortality rate in the EU.
My US health plan cost $106/month for great PPO coverage for two of us. Under my US plan, I had dental coverage, including 2 cleanings per year, vision coverage, mammograms starting at 40 (earlier if deemed high risk), and the ability to see specialists without a referral. That's better coverage, and much less expensive than the 8% of my gross salary I'm paying for my "free" healthcare here.
"Prescription drugs are inexpensive and free for those under 18 years of age."
I just paid 960 kr. (about $170) for two asthma prescriptions that would've run me a $40 co-pay in the US, or $20 if I'd gotten them mail order.
The system uses a sliding scale, which means that prescriptions become less expensive the more you spend, but in three years, I've yet to hit the threshold that makes my prescriptions cost less on average here than they did in the US.
Someone needs to check their facts because prescriptions are not free for those under 18, but minors do receive a higher reduction percentage without the 900 kr. deductible that applies for adults. (You can see the exact policy here. Google translate is usually pretty helpful if you can't read Danish.)
There's no doubt about it, not having health insurance can be catastrophic in the US, and I believe that situation needed to be fixed, but for most of us who did have insurance in the US, Danish healthcare falls short of what we had in the US at a much lower cost.
"The state covers three-quarters of the cost of child care, more for lower-income workers."
As well they should. The reality of the Danish economy is that it only works if everyone who can work, does work. That means most people can't afford the luxury of choosing to have a stay at home parent. I don't think it's even possible to cut expenses and rearrange finances to make it happen. There needs to be two incomes, essentially one for the household and one for the taxman.
After paying the insane income tax bill, the taxman gets another 25% VAT on everything we buy, including prescriptions, legal services, dental care, groceries, and even the mandatory media license. This puts us in the ballpark of 75% of everything that we earn and spend going to some sort of tax.
P.S. There's 180% "registration tax" on cars. In Denmark, we pay for a car about 3 times over, then we pay $8 - $9/gallon for gas and some other yearly taxes for road use/environment, etc.
"Virtually all higher education in Denmark is free. That includes not just college but graduate schools as well, including medical school."
This is true. Students also receive a government study allowance while they're in school. They're also taking an average of 3 gap years before studying, and another 1.5 years off during their studies, which is costing taxpayers about 2 billion kroner ($173 million) extra per year than if they'd finished in a shorter amount of time.
The former college student in me who worked multiple jobs, jammed college into eight semesters and still graduated with honors bristles a bit at financing this little perk, while not ever having the opportunity to benefit from it.
Which brings me to another point. I've mentioned before that I was entitled to three years of Danish language classes when I moved here. Recently, the government needed to find money to expand unemployment benefits, and it found the money by cutting the language school benefit for "working foreigners" from three years down to one. Aside from the "free" healthcare, that's pretty much the only benefit I was getting for my generous contribution to the state.
Which brings me to:
"...when people lose their jobs they must have adequate income while they search for new jobs. If a worker loses his or her job in Denmark, unemployment insurance covers up to 90 percent of earnings for as long as two years."
"People" must = Danes, because this is not true for foreigners in my visa class, which is for "highly qualified workers" and has a minimum salary requirement. If I lose my job, I have 3 months to find another one with a comparable salary, or I'll be deported. Nevermind that I've been paying into the system at the citizen rate for 3+ years, own property here, etc.
"In Denmark, adequate leisure and family time are considered an important part of having a good life. Every worker in Denmark is entitled to five weeks of paid vacation plus 11 paid holidays."
True. When I leave Denmark, aside from the people, this will be what I miss most. I have a challenging job that I love, yet I still have plenty of time to travel and pursue other interests. I have enough time to workout 5-6 days a week, cook dinner most nights, take online classes, read, write, work on my photography, socialize, etc.
Denmark is without a doubt, a great place for families!
"Recently the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the Danish people rank among the happiest in the world among some 40 countries that were studied. America did not crack the top 10."
Not anymore. According to the 2013 report, Denmark fell to the unlucky 7th spot this year, one spot behind the US, which is ranked number 6.
"Danes are, politically and economically, a very engaged and informed people. In their last election, which lasted all of three weeks and had no TV ads, 89 percent of Danes voted. "
They're so informed that they kept in power for 10 years the Dansk Folkeparti, who recently took out full page ads listing the names and towns of 700 residents who are to become Danish citizens, with the warning, "One person on this list is a danger to Denmark’s security. He will now become a Dane."
Everyone on this list has worked and paid taxes in Denmark for at least 4 1/2 years, passed a language exam, and a citizenship exam, renounced their previous citizenship (Denmark doesn't allow dual citizenship, even for mixed nationality children), signed an integration contract, and made a solomn declaration to become a Danish citizen. And now they're all being called out in the newspaper as a potential "danger to Denmark's security." What a warm welcome!
Dansk Folkeparti was voted out in the last election, but it's still a major player in Danish politics, not a fringe group of crazies like the ad, and some of their policies would suggest.
"Instead of promoting a system which allows a few to have enormous wealth, they have developed a system which guarantees a strong minimal standard of living to all."
Well, yes. This is what makes Denmark so comfortable. There's an amazing work/life balance, everyone has enough, and working more won't help you get ahead; so, you may as well sit back and enjoy life. But don't expect anything extraordinary.
I think the Danish system is great for Danes, and maybe even for permanent residents who have Danish partners and children, and who are able to benefit from the rich social programs our high taxes are financing. It's not a great fit for medium-term expats like me who are single, foreign educated, established in our careers, and locked out of the "safety net" due to our visa class.
Culturally, I think the Danish model is too tough a sell to most Americans, even liberal Americans. Idealistically, we may buy into a lot of the principles, but too many of us are programmed to push beyond the status quo, and expect to be handsomely rewarded for it. It is after all one of the founding principles our country, and it's part of our DNA.
I don't believe that either system is "better." I think they come from different histories, and that they're different. If I had grown up in Denmark, and been able to take advantage of all of the social benefits, I'd probably prefer the Danish system. But I grew up in the US, and I will likely die in the US, and the fact of the matter is that I am my own safety net. The system in my ideal world is somewhere between these two extremes.
As a relatively high earning single woman who's already been educated and doesn't have children, I'm paying into the system at a rate that's unsustainable to my long-term personal economy. I'm going to be 40 in a few years and I need to think pragmatically about my future; preferably before the future is now and I've given the majority of what I should've saved for retirement to the Danish coffers.
Danish policy has made it very clear that it does not want foreigners to settle here. Even though I'm mostly happy here, and considered the "right kind" of foreigner, it's been made clear that this is a business arrangement, a mostly one-sided business arrangement, but a business arrangement nonetheless.
My visa extension letter states that my residence and work permit is:
- conditional upon the employment implying an annual pay of DKK xxx,xxx.00 (their bolding for emphasis, not mine)
- granted with a view to a short-term stay
I believe and hope that having been living here for over three years, that I'm qualified to give an American perspective on living in the Danish system. I hope I've given an interesting, fair, and educated counter-perspective to the original article.
There is no panacea, there is no utopia, but it is a nice fairy tale.