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Denmark looks to cut back on its generous lifelong benefits

COPENHAGEN — It began as a stunt intended to prove that hardship and poverty still existed in this small, wealthy country, but it backfired badly. Visit a single mother of two on welfare, a liberal member of Parliament urged a skeptical political opponent, and see for yourself how hard it is.

It turned out, however, that life on welfare was not so hard. The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym ‘‘Carina’’ in the media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she’d been on welfare since she was 16.

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In past years, Danes might have shrugged off the case, finding Carina more pitiable than anything else. But even before her story was in the headlines 16 months ago, they were deeply engaged in a debate about whether their beloved welfare state, perhaps Europe’s most generous, had become too rich, undermining the country’s work ethic. Carina helped tip the scales.

With little fuss or political protest — or notice abroad — Denmark has been at work overhauling entitlements, trying to prod Danes into working more or longer or both. While much of southern Europe has been racked by strikes and protests as its creditors force austerity measures, Denmark still has an AAA bond rating.

Denmark’s long-term outlook is troubling, though. The population is aging, and in many regions of the country people without jobs now outnumber those with them.

Some of that is a result of a depressed economy, but many experts say a more basic problem is the proportion of Danes who are not participating in the workforce at all — be they dawdling university students, young pensioners, or welfare recipients like Carina who lean on hefty government support.

The Danish model of government is close to a religion, and it has produced a population that regularly claims to be among the happiest in the world. Even the country’s conservative politicians are not suggesting getting rid of it.

Denmark has among the highest marginal income-tax rates in the world, with the top bracket of 56.5 percent kicking in on incomes of more than about $80,000. In exchange, the Danes get a cradle-to-grave safety net that includes free health care, a free university education, and hefty payouts to even the richest citizens.

Parents in all income brackets, for instance, get quarterly checks from the government to help defray child-care costs. The elderly get free maid service if they need it, even if they are wealthy.

“In the past, people never asked for help unless they needed it,’’ said Karen Haekkerup, the minister of social affairs and integration. ‘‘My grandmother was offered a pension and she was offended. She did not need it.

‘‘Now people do not have that mentality. They think of these benefits as their rights. . . . now we need to go back to the rights and the duties.’’

Joachim B. Olsen, the skeptical member of Parliament from the Liberal Alliance party who visited Carina 16 months ago in her Copenhagen apartment, is particularly alarmed.

He says Sweden, which is already considered generous, has far fewer citizens living on government benefits. If Denmark followed Sweden’s example, it would have about 250,000 fewer people living on benefits of various sorts.

‘‘The welfare state here has spiraled out of control,’’ Olsen said. ‘‘It has done a lot of good, but we have been unwilling to talk about the negative side. For a very long time it has been taboo to talk about the Carinas.’’

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