Here’s an alternative picture of Hungary’s family policy

A guest post by State Secretary Katalin Novák.

“Baby machines – Eastern Europe’s answer to population decline” That was the title of The Guardian’s latest piece on Hungary. We’ll try to ignore the fact, although it’s not easy, that the author refers to Hungarian women, among other names, as “baby machines.” Instead, we’ll offer you a picture of how things as they actually are.

So, here’s an alternative version:

“Family-oriented governance, supporting families - Hungary's response to population decline”

Since 2010, the Hungarian Government has focused on strengthening families with children and helping young couples who have children to realize their family goals. According to the Orbán government, it is the obligation of a responsible national government to govern according to the needs and interests of the people. Hungary is a family-oriented country, and it makes sense that when young people say they would like to have more children, all available support should be provided. The road ahead of us is still long, but the initial results are encouraging.

Population decline is a huge challenge throughout Europe, including Hungary. For four decades now, fewer children are born in the country each year than the number of people who die; furthermore, in 12 of the 30 years since the change of regime, citizens endured anti-family government policies that dismantled the system of family support and discouraged Hungarians from having children.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán set up a government in 2010 that would focus on demographics and family to build a predictable, dependable, and secure family-support system. The driving force behind this approach is to use all available means to break down barriers to starting a family and having children. Of course, effective family policy is not enough for this. It was also necessary, after eight years of decline under Socialist rule, that the conservative government re-invigorate economic growth, employment and wages.

“Our goal today is to have as many children in Hungary as possible, because if there is a child, there is a future,” Prime Minister Orbán has said. “Government debt is declining, and unemployment is slowly disappearing. At the crossroads of our politics and economic policies – precisely because our economic policies have been successful – the goal now can be to have as many children as possible. We have adapted our tax system to this; we have adapted the support for creating a home to this; and this is also served by our work-based economy, which will soon bring us to full employment.”

Words were met with action. Each year, new elements were added to the system of subsidies and benefits to rebuild confidence among families. The Orbán Government reinstated the third year of GYES (the state’s child support program), which had been eliminated by the Socialists, and introduced family-type taxation, which means that families of average income with three children do not pay personal income tax. The loan program to support the purchase of a home has helped hundreds of thousands of Hungarians find a new, more spacious home. Large-scale nursery school development programs have been launched to help mothers with young children to return to the labor market if they wish to do so. An important milestone was the announcement of the Family Protection Action Plan in 2019, which included measures such as loans for those expecting a baby (HUF 10 million interest-free, free-use loan for young married couples, which does not have to be paid back if the couple have three children), a lifelong PIT exemption for mothers of four and subsidies for grandparents to take leave to care for children.

The results are encouraging. For example:

Today, the Hungarian government, compared to other governments in the West, allocates the most resources to families, nearly 5% of GDP and a 2.5-fold increase compared to 2010.

The propensity to have children has increased from 1.23 in 2011 to nearly 1.5 in 2019; without family-friendly measures, 88,000 fewer children would have been born.

The number of marriages increased by 84% compared to 2010. Hungary has not seen so many marriages in close to 30 years.

The number of divorces decreased by 29% compared to 2010.

The number of abortions fell by one third between 2010 and 2019.

Ten years on, these results show that the mobilization of domestic resources can work and can be an effective solution to address demographic challenges. At the same time, demographers warn that comprehensive measures are needed to reverse negative trends. Hungarian government actors do not deny that they have set ambitious goals and that it takes years to achieve meaningful results, but they also add that something needs to be done, more action is needed. The question as to why young people in Europe are not having children must be raised, and a solution needs to be found, even if this appears to be the more difficult path, even if this requires tough debate.

Not everyone agrees with the approach of Hungary and Central Europe. In many places in Western Europe, family support policies are labeled as outdated, exclusionary, limiting women to motherhood, and sometimes extreme. In addition, they see the solution to demographic problems more in immigration. The answer from the Hungarian government is clear: It accepts that others think differently and does not force others to embrace the same ideas, but it expects the same attitude in return. The Hungarian government doesn’t tell anyone how a person should live his life. It doesn’t want anybody to have a child for the sake of benefits, but neither does it want anyone to have to give up having a child because of a lack of support. We offer a choice.

If the reader enjoys a more challenging and thoughtful discussion of family policy, he or she will find much more here in the above than in the distorted opinion published in the Guardian.

Katalin Novák is the Minister of State for Family, Youth and International Affairs