There used to be a way to assess whether a Dane was living in poverty – anyone who earned less than 50 percent of the median income for three consecutive years.
This official poverty threshold was introduced by the previous Social Democratic (Socialdemokraterne) government, and was regarded as an important tool in fighting poverty. In 2013, the Ministry for Children and Social Affairs estimated that 42,200 Danes lived in poverty.
The UN, the EU and many countries including Norway, the UK and the US also have established a poverty limit to help estimate the number of poor.
The ruling Liberal-Party government does not see any benefits in the barometer, however, and scrapped it in September.
“A poverty limit is useless for any form of social policy,” minister of social affairs Karen Ellemann told Jyllands-Posten at the time.
“Therefore, we do not want to spend any of our resources on it, or use it in any way.”
Employment minister Troels Lund Poulsen hammered that point home in a column for Politiken in January, when he claimed that he neither accepted the previous government’s poverty limit, nor its calculation for the number of poor.
In December Eurostat released its figures on poverty on Europe, which found that the number of Danes living in extreme poverty had increased from two percent in 2008, to 3.7 percent in 2015. By comparison, only 0.7 and 1.7 percent of the Swedish and Norwegian population respectively, were living in extreme poverty.
Despite these worrying statistics, the current government still does not believe that poverty is an issue in Denmark.
“It is not a problem,” said Venstre’s social affairs spokesperson Carl Holst.
“There are many forms of poverty, such as emotional poverty, but economic poverty is not an issue.”
Holst argues that only people who are receiving unemployment benefits can be considered to be living in poverty. The main challenge is, therefore, finding ways to get them back into the labour market.
A useful tool
Many organisations that fight poverty have expressed concern at the elimination of the poverty limit, including the council for the socially vulnerable (Rådet for Socialt Udsatte), an independent organisation, which is part of the Ministry for Social Affairs.
“The poverty limit is a very useful tool for measuring poverty,” said Jann Sjursen, the council’s director.
“Its elimination has meant that once again the discussion has moved away from finding solutions to poverty, to discussing what poverty actually is. I was a part of the commission that decided the limit at the time, and I truly believe that it was correct and worked.”
According to Sjursen, poverty in Denmark needs to be talked about in relative terms, as poverty in more disadvantaged countries is different from the richer part of the world. In Denmark, people who are unable to send their children to after school activities, struggle to pay rent and avoid health care services, such as going to the dentist, are poor.
Sjursen also argues that while the number of poor in Denmark increases, attitudes toward the poor have changed too.
“I think especially among the young there has been a change. People focus more on the individual and solidarity has been on the decline,” he says.
“Maybe people feel that their taxes are not going towards helping the elderly or improving our public schools, so they feel that they need to take care of these things on their own.”
The recent reforms of unemployment benefits also worry Sjursen, who believes Denmark will see a stark increase in the number of poor as a result.
“We can expect that reforms such as the cap on unemployment benefits will push more people into poverty.”
The opposition Socialist People’s Party (SF) is highly critical of the decision to remove the official poverty limit, too.
“A limit allows us to have discussions about when the cuts to the welfare state are too deep,” said social affairs spokesperson Kirsten Normann Andersen.
“It helps us see when people can no longer afford to live in the country. Eliminating it was politically motivated and has hindered us in discussing the issue.”
She adds that the discussion about poverty is too focused on people who receive benefits, rather than the existence of the working poor.
“Their rhetoric is that ‘it must pay to work’, which implies that if you are employed you can’t be poor. This is just not the case,” she says. “By claiming that you are the master of your own destiny, they can close their eyes to poverty and refuse to acknowledge it.”
Pointing to statistics that show increasing levels of poverty, she dismisses the government’s claims that poverty is not a problem, arguing that their wealthy background’s mean they cannot relate to what it means to be poor.
“The government has ignored the problem. It is too stuck in its ideology of individual responsibility.”
For a country that has always been proud of its welfare state, the government’s policies are making a bad situation worse, she argues. She points to pensioners who live in poverty and young people who get by on little and are forced to take jobs that offer little security.
But as much as she wants the government to change its policies, she also wants broader society to change what it thinks about poverty.
“We want to fight inequality and poverty and that fight starts with our children. Heavy investment is needed to help children live a good life and ensure they get things such as food in school,” she said.
“But the problem is also that we now have rich ghettos, where people grow up without ever seeing poverty. This creates individuals who believe everybody is in the same position as they are. This problem will only get worse as, increasingly, apartments in Copenhagen are only available to the rich.”
If elections were held today, the left wing ‘red bloc’ would sweep back into power with 51.4 percent of the vote. Should that happen, Andersen insists that SF will fight to reintroduce the poverty limit and roll back the unemployment reforms that were implemented by the current government.
“The poverty limit should be reestablished. But the only ultimate demand we have regarding our potential role in a future government is the abolishment of the benefits cap. That is non-negotiable.” M