Hungary’s family policy is one of the most generous in Europe but liberal opponents of the country’s controversial PM, Viktor Orban, don’t give him much credit for it. He is opposed to making up Hungary’s long-term population decline through immigration; instead, he says he wants to increase the country’s population.
Not everyone approves. A couple of years ago, the Swedish minister for social affairs, Annika Strandhäll, said Hungarian family policy “reeks of the 1930s” and would “harm the autonomy for which women have struggled for decades”.
Mr Orban’s minister for families, Katalin Novák, takes a different view. She’s an economist by training, a diplomat by profession and a mother of three. As we talk via Zoom, her husband is supervising their 17-year-old son’s home schooling. “Is he good at it?” I ask. “Yes,” she says, “perfect.” She ensured kindergartens and primary schools remained open during lockdown.
On average, Hungarian couples say they would like 2.5 children, just over the replacement rate.
“We believe in freedom of choice,” she says. “It’s our aim as a government that disadvantages disappear for couples with children vis a vis those who don’t have them. It’s about erasing those disadvantages.”
On average, Hungarian couples say they would like 2.5 children, just over the replacement rate. Trouble is, the population of women of childbearing age has decreased by 20 per cent in a decade, as a result of a previous demographic drop. “Even with this data we could increase the birth rate,” she says optimistically. The fertility rate, the number of children each woman has, has risen by almost a quarter in the decade since the present government took office in 2010, the highest rate in the EU.
The policy has also succeeded in increasing the number of marriages by 43 per cent in ten years to 67,000 last year. But, she observes, “couples shouldn’t be married to get family benefits. It’s about the culture.” The one family benefit restricted to married couples is the grant you get if you say you are intending to have a child.
The government spends 4.7 per cent of GDP on family benefits. The more children you have, the less income tax you pay, and with three or four children you don’t pay personal tax at all. Couples expecting a child get a general loan of €28,000 interest-free; that doesn’t have to be repaid after the third child.
There’s a housing loan of €28,000 for families with two children, €42,000 for those with three, in addition to a cash grant for those with three children or who say they want to have three. Tax benefits are transferable between spouses.
Recently, a video report by the Guardian suggested that Hungary’s family policy creates a hostile environment for childless women. Mrs Novák counters: ”Our system gives you more freedom of choice.”
Family support is pre-natal, from the first three months of pregnancy. “We treat the foetus as the same as a child”, she says.
Critics say that the policies, based on employment benefits, disadvantage the country’s Roma gypsies, many of whom are jobless. “The Roma in Hungary,” says Mrs Novák, “are settled and can be reached through family support and housing subsidies.” Their unemployment rate is high, 17.4 per cent, but the numbers in work rose by 13 per cent over the last five years. “Employment isn’t only about money,” she says. “A generation of Roma grew up without seeing parents going to work. We want a good example for children.”
Recently, a video report by the Guardian suggested that Hungary’s family policy creates a hostile environment for childless women. Mrs Novák counters: ”Our system gives you more freedom of choice. Our parental leave system – up to three years – is an option to stay at home or return to work after six months. People can choose. We don’t push anybody. And couples can share the leave between themselves.”
There’s a generous day care system. Kindergartens are compulsory and free from the age of three. School textbooks are free. There are summer camps for poorer children. “It’s very unfair to say about Hungarian family policy that it’s punishing people for not having children”, she says. “It’s just giving a positive incentive.”
You could say it’s a pro-choice agenda, in a good way.