Danophilia is alive and well in America. Bernie Sanders and other liberals have lauded Denmark’s social democratic dream state, with its free college tuition, nearly universal pre-K, and plentiful child care. While Republicans and Democrats both praise the virtues of what economists call “intergenerational mobility”—the chance for a poor young child to become at least a middle-class adult—America doesn’t lead the world in the pursuit of the American Dream. The standard social mobility statistic measures how much each generation's income is determined by its parents' income. By that measure, northern Europe and Scandinavia have the highest social mobility in the advanced world, and Denmark tops the list.
But this Danish Dream is a “Scandinavian Fantasy,” according to a new paper by Rasmus Landersø at the Rockwool Foundation Research Unit in Copenhagen and James J. Heckman at the University of Chicago. Low-income Danish kids are not much more likely to earn a middle-class wage than their American counterparts. What’s more, the children of non-college graduates in Denmark are about as unlikely to attend college as their American counterparts.
If that’s true, how does Denmark rank number-one among all rich countries in social mobility? It’s all about what happens after wages: The country’s high taxes on the rich and income transfers to the poor “compress” economic inequality within each generation: When the rungs on the economic ladder are closer together, it’s easier to move a little bit up (or down) over the course of a generation.