Buda baby boomers

Hungary’s natalist policies are both generous and effective

Melanie McDonagh

Which European country provides paid parental leave—for mothers or fathers—for three years and free or heavily subsidised nursery care from the age of three? Plus extra holiday leave for parents, free school textbooks, state holiday camps and free or really cheap school and nursery meals? And a generous housing subsidy for families with children, plus a loan for would-be parents of €35,000 (£30,000) which goes down with each child and is written off at the third child?

Sweden? Finland? Somewhere Nordic?

Nope. We’re talking Hungary. Viktor Orbán’s government wants Hungarians to have more babies, to bolster a 9.8m population that has declined by a tenth since its peak of 10.7m in 1980. In common with many European countries, especially in the east, this is below the replacement rate. The policy means a woman who has four children will never pay income tax again.

In charge of the policy is Katalin Novák. She has three children of her own and would have liked a fourth, but instead she is running the families ministry. Its budget is now 4.6 per cent of GDP, a startling two and a half times rise on spending under the previous centre-left government. Novák’s Swedish counterpart, Annika Strandhäll, dismissed the policy as a return to the 1930’s. “We’re not persuading anyone”, says Novák. “I wouldn’t even use the word ‘incentive’. To have a child is always a personal matter. We’re enabling young couples to have as many children as they want.”

The average young couple would like 2.1 children. The actual figure has already risen from a record low of 1.23 in 2011, when the Orban government took office, to 1.5 .

A Hungarian friend, a career civil servant, has two sons and says she is seriously thinking about a third child. “The incentives do make a difference,” she says. And what about a fourth, so as never to pay taxes again? “Ah no,” she said, “there’s a big difference between three and four.”

Such a highly interventionist, well-funded social programme should be attracting plaudits. But it runs headlong into outsiders’ preconceptions about both Hungary (reactionary) and parenting (disguised patriarchy). The Guardian fumed, “So long as child rearing is understood as primarily work for women, attempts to encourage large families will inevitably be seen as attempts to chase women out of the workforce.”

Not at all, says, Novák. “Fathers can also stay at home.” Most benefits, she says, apply to both parents. “We doubled parents’ extra holidays so fathers can take that. We enable fathers to be present in family life. But something’s happening by itself: men, educated men, want to take a role in childrearing. If you ask young men how they think of themselves in the future, they actually say they want to be active fathers. That’s good.”

Moreover, she says, no life path is better than another, whether you have nine children or none at all. “We just enlarge the room for manoeuvre.” She herself enjoyed the six years she spent with her young children: “I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.”

Does her own husband help? “Lots. He’s away at the moment, and there’s nothing in the fridge, because he does the shopping.”

Grants to parents operate mostly via the tax system, raising questions about its usefulness for the country’s large Roma (gypsy) population, which mostly functions outside the formal economy. “We do link work and family benefits,” says Novák, “but you don’t have to be wealthy. You do have to work. That’s very important. The unemployment rate is now 3.5 per cent, and if someone wants work they can find work. Whatever kind of background you have, you can play your part. We have a public works scheme.”

Nor does she buy the idea it’s an anti-immigrant move; it began, she said, under the first Orbán government, before the refugee crisis.

Housing subsidies for families are, she says, “quite generous”. If you plan to have three children you can have a €25,000 subsidy. You can also get a credit of €50,000 (less for fewer children) to buy or build with a low interest rate. This is a “home subsidy” she says, not a housing subsidy. It helps the construction industry too.

If you are married (in Hungary only heterosexual marriage is legal) and say you’re planning to have children, you can get a general loan of €35,000; there is a reduction of 35 per cent in the amount you pay back for each successive child. Unsurprisingly, marriage is at a 40-year high.

Benefits for children, however, are given to everyone. Poorer children get free school meals, four a day in day-care; three in nursery. Every child is entitled to a childcare place, free for about half of children, and heavily subsidised for the rest. Attendance at kindergarten is compulsory. Otherwise, she points out, children could arrive at school without social skills.

The point of all this spending—Novák prefers the term “investment”—is that “we want to be a family friendly country.” If it sounds the opposite of the young women giving up on having children to save the planet, it is. “Who are we trying to save it for,” she asks, “if not for our children and grandchildren?”

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