Going Dutch? Not So Fast!

By Heleen Mees

NRC columnist Heleen Mees begs to disagree with Russell Shorto's raving article in The New York Times about the benefits of living in the Dutch welfare state. Mees, who lives in New York, has recently published a book in which she argues that European welfare states would do well to look to opportunity-based societies like New York for inspiration.

In his elegantly written essay Going Dutch, Russell Shorto sounds the praises of the Dutch welfare state. He raves about the ‘kinderbijslag,’ or child benefit, he receives quarterly and the annual check to cover the expenses for his children's schoolbooks.

Of course Shorto loves the welfare state. The top income-tax rate of 52 percent for all income above 65,000 dollar doesn't hurt him. As an expatriate Shorto's income tax is reduced by 30 percent for a period of ten years. Other mortals in the Netherlands, however, face a marginal tax rate of over 55 percent on every euro earned, not to mention the 7 dollar they pay for a gallon of gasoline and the 19 percent value added tax on all goods and services they purchase.

More importantly, the Dutch welfare state isn't as beneficial to low-skilled immigrants as it is to Russell Shorto. In fact, it has suffocated the large group of non-western immigrants (mostly from Morocco and Turkey) who came to the Netherlands over the past decades to seek their fortune.

Though one would assume that a caring state should be able to ensure a higher quality of life than an “uncaring” state, in actual practice this isn't the case at all.

Due to the high cost of labour (20-25 dollars per hour at minimum wage level) many low-skilled immigrants can't find a job and are forced to spend their lives in subsidised isolation. In the Netherlands, immigrants and people of immigrant background in the 15 to 65 age group are four times more likely to live on public assistance than other people in that age group; they are also over-represented in the crime statistics.

In New York it is exactly the other way around. Immigrants commit less crime and are less often unemployed. The gross minimum wage is lower than in the Netherlands at 7.25 dollars, but thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) people with annual incomes up to 37,000 dollars actually end up with more money after taxes than before.

The EITC is dependent on a person's salary and family situation and is capped at 4,800 dollars per year. This way the gross cost of labour is kept down and more jobs are created in the bottom segment of the market, both in the public and in the private sector.

Take my building in Brooklyn. The Sweeney Building, an 85 apartments complex, employs six people on a full-time basis and two on a part-time basis. My gym in Chelsea employs one-hundred people full-time and fifty part-time. These jobs simply don't exist in the Netherlands. Instead there is a labyrinth of benefits whose main use is to camouflage how many people under 65 are living on welfare.

It is this system that allowed Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen to say at a Henri Polak reading on May 14 that the Netherlands are doing a pretty good job in terms of employment, despite the fact that more than one million and a half people under 65 are living on some type of state benefit. If the crisis persists, and chances are that it will, this number will likely increase to two million people, or a quarter of the working population.

Neither is the Netherlands the placid, stable country that Shorto makes it out to be. Since the turn of the century the Netherlands has experienced a rise in anti-immigrant sentiments and an unprecedented outburst of political violence.

In May 2002 Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing politician with an anti-immigrant message, was shot and killed. According to opinion polls Fortuyn had stood a chance to become the country's next prime minister in the national elections that were held a week later.

In November 2004 the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim extremist, after he had released the anti-Islam film Submission in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Islam critic. On Van Gogh’s body a letter was pinned containing a death threat to Hirsi Ali who subsequently had to flee the country.

On April 30 the Dutch traditionally celebrate Queen’s Day. This year the national holiday parade was interrupted as a 38-year-old Dutchman slammed his car into the crowd, killing six bystanders. The bald driver, who died of his injuries a day after the attack, admitted to police that he had been aiming for the royal family.

In recent years queen Beatrix and her family have been actively trying to lessen tensions between the different groups in Dutch society, much so to the disgruntlement of Geert Wilders, the political leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom.

Wilders, who has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf, and blamed Islamic texts for inciting the 9/11 attacks, declared last December that the queen could no longer be part of government because she had called for tolerance in her Christmas address to the nation. If elections were held today, according to some polls, Wilders' Party for Freedom would win the most seats in parliament.

Russell Shorto is rather disingenuous in portraying the Dutch welfare state as a fairy tale come true without ever mentioning Fortuyn, Van Gogh (other than the famous painter) or Wilders. Shorto is a sojourner, and he doesn’t need to worry about what lies ahead for the country that I grew up in.

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