Shortly after Viktor Orbán’s third consecutive two-thirds majority victory in the Hungarian parliamentary elections on April 8th, the freshly re-elected prime minister declared during an interview on state-run Kossuth Rádió that he wishes to “reach a comprehensive agreement with Hungarian women.”
Arguing that “demographics stands or falls [on women],” Orbán stressed the necessity of helping those women who are eager to have children by reaching an agreement with them lasting for “fifteen, twenty, thirty years” about “Hungary’s future.” Orbán’s statement perfectly captures the essence of his Government’s demographics-oriented approach to family policy and also its extremely conservative views on gender.
Everything for the families…
On January 1, 2012, the Fundamental Law, Hungary's new constitution that had been drafted by members of the governing Fidesz and Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP) parties without any genuine coordination with parties of the opposition or the electorate, came into force. The governing coalition went to great lengths to prove its pro-family stance and its commitment to traditional heterosexual relationships by including concerning passages in the new constitution.
The preamble of the Fundamental Law, the so-called National Avowal, contains the following passage: "We hold that the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence and that our fundamental cohesive values are fidelity, faith, and love.”
Later the constitution defines family as "as the basis of the survival of the nation." Family ties, the constitution reads, shall be based on marriage and/or the relationship between parents and children. The institution of marriage to be protected by Hungary, however, is defined rather strictly as "the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision." The constitution also declares that "Hungary shall encourage the commitment to have children," and that "the protection of families shall be regulated by a cardinal Act."
However, as the Government's family policy unfolded in the following years it became apparent that Viktor Orbán's cabinet has a very precise idea of the exact families whom Hungary shall protect and encourage their commitment to have children, namely, middle-class families with an average or above-average income where preferably both parents are employed.
...of the employed middle class
The most troubling aspect of the Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) Government’s family policy is that it is aimed almost exclusively at the more affluent families while it leaves the most vulnerable households on the side of the road.
In 2012, the Government abolished the progressive income tax and introduced a flat-rate 16% income tax, a measure that was generally well-received by the public, especially by higher-income households. Even though lower-income families also saw a minor, one percent decrease in their income tax rate, the fact that the tax reform also abolished tax credits and introduced taxation of the minimum wage left such families with a higher tax burden than before.
Unfair family tax allowance
At the same time, the Government introduced the family tax allowance, which gradually became the hallmark of the Orbán cabinet’s family policy. The family tax allowance provides a deduction from an employed parent's tax base per each child in the family. The name is somewhat confusing as only one of the parents can use the deduction. Although married couples and registered life partners can choose to share the tax allowance between each other, the deduction can only be applied to one person’s income at a time.
In a single-child family, the tax allowance results in a net HUF 10,000 (EUR 30) increase to the take-home income of one of the parents. The increase is 3.5 times higher in families with two children and at least 10 times higher in families with three or more children. The higher deduction rate provided for multi-child families might seem justified, as the costs of these families are higher as well.
However, a remarkable aspect of the family tax allowance system is that it does not differentiate between lower and higher-income families; minimum wage employees and top managers alike are eligible and receive exactly the same amount of tax deduction. Also, the system does not take into consideration single parents with one child as they are eligible for the same low deduction rate as two-parent households. It is also worth noting that the fact that it is often the husband who claims the tax allowance may put women who are estranged from their partners in a financially vulnerable situation.
Deterioration of child benefits
Meanwhile, as part of its broader middle-class centred family strategy, the Government has gradually let the real value of child benefits and family allowances deteriorate. Although it was the short-lived socialist Government of Gordon Bajnai that froze the amount of these two vastly important benefits as part of its post-2008 austerity measures, during the following two parliamentary cycles the Fidesz-KDNP coalition Government has not raised them.
It is important to note that while the family tax allowance and the rate of numerous other child-related subsidies are calculated based on parents’ income and employment status, child benefit and family allowance are universal benefits, meaning that every mother with a child who is under age three and all households with a child under 16 are eligible for the respective benefits. Due to inflation during the past nine years, families where one or both parents are unemployed or earn minimum wage or less have become extremely vulnerable.
Demographics is not everything
In addition to being overly middle-class centred, another problematic aspect of the Orbán Government’s family policy is that it revolves solely around increasing the birth rate.
It should be noted that the Fidesz Government’s obsession with demographics has deep historical roots. Ever since the early 1900s when the mostly Hungarian-populated territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire started to show worse birth rates than other parts of the Empire, the fear of "the death of the nation" has determined Hungarian politicians' and policymakers' approach to family policy.
Governments preceding the current Fidesz-KDNP cabinet all focused on demographics in some way. It must also be noted that the aging of society is not a uniquely Hungarian problem, but a general trend in the western world. The problem with the Government’s family policy is not that it focuses on demographics, but that it ignores other important factors.
As Dorottya Szikra, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences pointed out in an interview with Hungarian news site 444.hu, the Government’s family policy leaves family-related issues like gender inequality and child poverty unaddressed. While the Orbán Government’s family policy spendings exceed the EU average, demographers generally agree, according to Szikra, that increasing the rate of cash transfers will not result in a booming birth rate in and of itself.
A 2017 comprehensive study on Hungarian demographics reached the same conclusion. According to demographers Balázs Kapitány and Zsolt Spéder, “it would be a mistake to expect in the current demographic condition of the country that solely one factor, an effective pronatalist family policy alone, could put Hungary on a desirable, maintainable demographic course.”
Viktor Orbán’s statement, namely that demographics “stands or falls [on women]” suggests that the Prime Minister has yet to understand the complex factors that might influence one’s decision to have a child. Moreover, it hints that the Orbán and his government still identify women first and foremost with their reproductive organs.
By promoting sexist ideas like this, Orbán and his fellow politicians reinforce the archaic belief that women belong at home and that their role in society should not go beyond cleaning, cooking, giving birth to children and tending them.
In such a toxically misogynistic atmosphere, it comes as no surprise that according to the European Institute for Gender Equality, of all the EU Member States, Hungary only ranks above Greece on the 2017 Gender Equality Index. On the power index that measures gender equality in decision-making positions across the political, economic and social spheres, Hungary ranks last among the EU countries.
Between 2012 and 2015, only 9.7 percent of MPs were female in the Hungarian National Assembly, while the third Orbán Government (2014-18) had no female ministers at all, in contrast to the second (2010-14) which had one. Although on the under secretarial level the second and third Orbán cabinets performed slightly better, the rate of female undersecretaries still did not exceed 15 percent while the average share of female ministers in the EU was 26.8 percent between 2012 and 2015.
"Women cannot stand the stress of Hungarian politics"
When Viktor Orbán was asked in 2015 why his Government had no female members, the Prime Minister answered that women could not stand the stress that comes along with participating in Hungarian politics. Last year, when Orbán was asked about the unexpected withdrawal of Hungary’s ambassador to the United States Réka Szemerkényi, he simply replied that he does not deal with “women’s issues”.
Orbán might have had a change of heart after all, as on May 18 economist Andrea Bártfai-Mager took the oath of office as Minister without Portfolio for the Management of State Assets, making her the only female minister of the fourth Orbán government.
Even though it had been known for a long time that every week a woman dies in Hungary as a direct result of domestic violence, it took the scandal of a Fidesz MP who had broken his domestic partner’s nose to finally add “relationship violence” to the penal code as a separate offense in 2013. Meanwhile, the Government still refuses to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence because, according to Fidesz vice president and MP Szilárd Németh, the convention attacks the traditional family model and “tries to transplant the gender philosophy”.
Small steps, many more to go
Nonetheless, the Government seems to have understood that encouraging women to stay at home will not necessarily lead to more births. As a result of the Government’s nursery expansion program, the rate of nursery-attending children increased from 11% to 16% in the last couple of years. Even though nurseries are more likely to accept children with two employed parents, which again reflects the family policy’s middle-class-oriented approach, the expansion program is unprecedented in the last decade and somewhat compensates for the lack of an adequate part-time employment scheme in Hungary.
The establishment of a new state-funded institution that deals with single-parent families also gives some hope that the Government has accepted that there are plenty of families that do not fit the “traditional” category but need help nevertheless.
Last year, the Government announced that 2018 would be the “year of families” and launched a series of family-friendly free time activities and a new website promoting the Government’s family policy. However, the long-term effect of a publicity stunt like this is questionable.Viktor Orbán’s sudden alleged desire to understand and please Hungarian women cannot be considered sincere as long as politicians of the governing parties make misogynistic remarks on the floor of the Parliament on a regular basis.
If Orbán and his new Government really want to help women and protect families they should consider a work-hour reform to encourage the long-term part-time employment of women and men alike, further expanding nursery places and making them available for every child regardless of their parents’ employment status, and last but not least, strengthening the child benefit and family allowance against the family tax allowance. These measures could benefit all families, not just the wealthier ones, and thus lead to a more egalitarian society.