U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, and Danish Ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen discuss Denmark s society and system at the Brattleboro Museum. (Chris
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, and Danish Ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen discuss Denmark s society and system at the Brattleboro Museum. (Chris Mays/Reformer)
Monday May 20, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vt-I, invited the Danish Ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen to speak about what the United States could learn from Taksoe-Jensen's country, which has universal health care as well as a unique education system.

"I believe there's an enormous amount we can learn from them," said Sanders, who credited Denmark's government with achieving extraordinary accomplishments towards human dignity and social welfare.

On May 18, Sanders and Taksoe-Jensen discussed Denmark's approach to health care, education and environmental protection at the Brattleboro Museum. It was one of three Town Hall meetings that Sanders arranged. There was not an empty seat in the house.

Taksoe-Jensen wanted to make it clear that he was discussing how the Danish society is organized, not that the United States should just copy it and everything will work out.

"We decided many years ago to start working on the Danish welfare state," he said.

The tax rate is very high in Denmark, and Taksoe-Jensen said it is difficult for a person to become "filthy rich" there.

The top bracket or richest people pay an average of about 63 percent off their income, while the average resident pays approximately 40 percent of their income. There is also a 25 percent sales tax on all goods.

The tax revenue helps to fuel the universal health care system in Denmark.

"From the birth until the grave, we have free health care for all," said Taksoe-Jensen. "You don't have to pay for anything when it comes to normal health care."

Dental work has to be partially paid, he said. But that depends on a person's income.

"We spend 8 to 10 percent of our (Gross Domestic Product) on health care," said Taksoe-Jensen. "The U.S. spends 17-18 of their GDP (on health care) and it doesn't have everyone having access to the system."

Taksoe-Jensen said that many people ride their bicycles to work instead of drive cars.

"We don't dress for the occasion," he said. "We dress for the trip."

In Denmark, when a person retires or they are 65 years old, they receive a "People's Pension." It is $40,000 a year, as long as the retiree has been a part of the labor market in the country.

Unemployment benefits can last up to two years in Denmark.

"When you lose your job, you get about 90 percent of the salary you had," said Taksoe-Jensen. "We say, we have security for everyone. No one's really allowed to fall through the cracks in Denmark ... It's much easier to lay people off in a system (like this one.)"

It is manageable for families to get through a period of unemployment, he added.

The maternity leave in his country is set up differently, too. It can be taken for up to a year. Half of that year is paid with full salary while the second half is reduced salary but with government support.

Four weeks before the due date, the mother can take leave and for 14 weeks after, she will receive full salary. The father will receive 2 weeks off around the birth of the baby. For the last 36 weeks of the year-long maternity leave permitted, the man and woman can decide which one gets the time off.

"Altogether, they can be out of work for a year," said Taksoe-Jensen. "Most of it is paid for by the government... (It is) reimbursed after the company pays."

He said that women usually want to get back to work quickly and only take about six weeks after the birth.

The parents also receive an income for each child, starting at birth and lasting until the child's 18th birthday.

Day care is available starting when the child is 26 weeks old, "so the father won't be in total distress."

"Every child (born) has a place in day care," continued Taksoe-Jensen. "(And the) family only will pay up to 25 percent of that day care."

He said that 97 percent of children ages three to five are in some type of public day care, which promotes adults staying in the workforce.

From Pre-K to college, education is not paid for by the parents. And during college years, students receive a grant from the state, which acts as a kind of salary to be used during studies. However, there is a limit for how long a person can spend studying at universities while receiving a stipend from the state.

One of the goals that Taksoe-Jensen said Denmark has is making the country "totally fossil fuel-free" in 2050.

"Part of Denmark is Greenland," he said. "And everything is melting very fast there. Everything is changing... We have engaged in what I call a ‘Green Revolution,' leading back to a situation in 1974, when my country was 98 percent dependent on fossil fuel."

Sander pointed out that 50 million people in the United States don't have health care. He also said Americans should focus more on their children's education and future.

"The Danish system of today did not occur two days ago or 10 years ago," Sanders concluded. "They have been working on it for a very, very long time. And I think as Vermonters, and I believe this sincerely, our job is to lead this entire nation in a very different direction."

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.